book review: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

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WOMEN & POWER: A MANIFESTO by Mary Beard
★★★★★
2017, Profile Books

We only need to look at the size of Women & Power: A Manifesto – 128 pages – to know that this isn’t going to be an in-depth academic text which rigorously examines the themes it presents. But that’s okay. Instead, it’s a concise and thought-provoking introductory text for anyone interested in feminist theory, who maybe isn’t quite sure where to start.

Women & Power is a combination of 2 essays, which each began as a lecture that Mary Beard – classicist and outspoken feminist – gave somewhat recently in her career. The first essay concerns itself with the role of women in the public sphere, and the precedent of silencing women’s voices, using both historical and literary examples. The second essay shifts to our societal conception of power as a male-dominated domain, to which women are still somewhat grudgingly granted access.

My main piece of advice going into this is to keep your expectations reasonable and remember the page count. If you don’t find this kind of brevity suitable for this subject matter, this is definitely not the text for you. But if that doesn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend taking an hour to read this. Mary Beard’s ideas are brilliant and well-articulated, and the way she links current events with classical precedents is something that I found particularly engaging and unique about this. This isn’t exactly a treatise on where we go from here, on how we change the way we have perceived power for so long, which some may find disheartening, but Beard leaves this question up for discussion and contemplation. Books like this are a necessary step.

book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna

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HAPPINESS by Aminatta Forna
★★★☆☆
Atlantic Monthly Press, March 6, 2018

I’m so conflicted about Happiness. I think there’s a really extraordinary novel in here – I just think it occasionally gets too caught up in its meandering structure, and loses focus too often. At its best, it’s striking and thought-provoking; at its worst, it’s a slog.

Happiness is a quiet, contemplative novel that meditates on themes like trauma, cultural differences, the relationship between humans and animals, and what it means to be happy. The novel begins with a chance encounter between two expats in London, an American woman named Jean and a Ghanaian man named Attila. It takes place over the course of about a week (though it feels much longer), and it follows each of their narratives as they weave in and out of each other’s lives.

I’ve seen this compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, but it actually reminds me more of The Unconsoled. Not the whole Kafkaesque element, but one thing that struck me was how Jean and Attila kept encountering minor characters, getting caught up in their drama, and getting derailed from their main story – reminiscent of Ishiguro’s character Ryder (not to mention that Attila and Ryder are both meant to be preparing for exhibitions of sorts – a psychology lecture for one and a piano recital for the other). But anyway, these proverbial rabbit holes that they go down feel less like subplots than they do side-quests, and as a reader I couldn’t help but to go through Happiness with a touch of impatience, waiting for the narrative to regain focus. This not-quite-linear structure is deliberate, but it didn’t completely work for me.

I thought Forna’s prose was really excellent, and I highlighted so many passages on my Kindle that I found striking. But I also couldn’t wait to be done with this after a while. While it’s certainly a unique novel that has a lot to offer, I just wish it had been subjected to more rigorous editing. Maybe that’s just a personal preference, though. Recommended if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful and character-driven, that ultimately examines the role of trauma in shaping our lives.

Thank you to Netgalley, Atlantic Monthly Press, and Aminatta Forna for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr

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BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
★★★★★
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.

The Feminist Book Tag

I wasn’t tagged for this, but I’ve seen it going around and I wanted to do it in celebration of International Women’s Day… and now I am several days late, but oh well.  I’m a feminist every day.

1- Your favorite female author

I wouldn’t even know how to pick just one.  Hanya Yanagihara, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, Han Kang, Mary Renault, JK Rowling, Min Jin Lee, Lisa See, Celeste Ng… and then my classicist faves: Anne Carson, Caroline Alexander, Emily Wilson, Mary Beard.

2- Your favorite heroine

17333319So many.  I’m trying to not use the same answer I give every time, which is Sansa Stark, so I’ll mix it up and say Agnes Magnusdottir from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Agnes was actually a real person – the last woman to ever be sentenced to death in Iceland – though her personality in Burial Rites is mostly invented by Kent.  She’s a strong, complex, brilliantly crafted heroine, and her journey in this novel haunts me still.

 

3- A novel with a feminist message

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartGirl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.  This is a historical fiction novel which fictionalizes the life of the first female police officer in New Jersey in the early 1900s, and it’s a major feminist triumph.  A group of three sisters are being harassed by a local bigwig business man, and the three of them are able to fight back on their own while rejecting the help of the male figures in their lives.  It’s a very entertaining novel, but also, it’s hard not to feel empowered by the end of it.

4- A novel with a girl on the cover

 

All of these.

5- A novel featuring a group of girls

29981261The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson.  Ok, this is a bit of a morbid answer, as it’s a novel about a man who imprisons girls in his ‘Garden’ before assaulting and eventually killing them.  However!  The really great and surprising thing about this book was the focus on the camaraderie between the girls who have been captured.  This book is as much about female friendships as it is about the horrors that occur in the Garden – it’s less about the gruesome details and more about the psychological impact, and I’d highly recommend it.  Though, obviously, trigger warnings for rape and violence apply.

6- A novel with a LGBTQIAP+ female character

220px-funhomecoverFun Home by Alison Bechdel.  This graphic novel is Bechdel’s autobiographical account of growing up in a funeral home, but it also focuses on coming to terms with her own sexuality, as well as her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father.  I’m not usually a big graphic novel reader, and I only decided to check this out after falling in love with the musical that’s based on it, but I ended up loving the book too.  Bechdel’s prose is really superb, and it’s a really honest and heartfelt account of a young girl realizing that she isn’t straight.  (Or you could just watch this performance of Sydney Lucas singing Ring of Keys at the 2015 Tony Awards if you want to cry a lot about that.)

7- A novel with different feminine POV

35412372Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.  Admittedly I’m not 100% sure what this question is asking, but, this book has the most ‘different’ POVs I have ever encountered.  It’s narrated by a chorus of the main character’s ‘selves,’ which she conceptualizes as Nigerian ogbanje.  This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their horizons with some less traditional but still feminist lit.

 

8- A book where a girl saves the world

220px-the_hunger_gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Creative, I know.  I don’t really read YA fantasy, so this is all I could come up with.  I did really love these books, though (with the exception of Mockingjay) and Katniss is still one of my favorite fictional heroines.

 

 

9- A book where you prefer the female sidekick to the male MC

15827344The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  I’m bending the rules for this one a little bit – Puck isn’t Sean’s sidekick, and I’d say they share their narration equally… but I couldn’t come up with anything else, so, here we are.  I practically fell asleep every time I was reading one of Sean’s chapters, but I found Puck so compelling and sympathetic.

 

10- A book written by a male author and featuring a female character

12903397Venus in Fur by David Ives.  It’s a play, not a book (I’m doing a great job following the rules in this tag aren’t I) but Vanda is one of the most enigmatic and formidable female characters ever created.  If you haven’t read this script, you absolutely should – it’s a fascinating meditation on gender roles, and it subverts all of your expectations.

 

Tagging: Steph, Chelsea, Callum, Hannah.  Feel free to pass, etc.

book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

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CIRCE by Madeline Miller
★★★☆☆
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018

Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.

In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.

My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.

This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.

Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)

I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.

Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.

Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

top 5 wednesday: Books I Disliked But Love to Discuss

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

I haven’t done one of these in a while!

March 7: Freebie: Since these are posted a bit later than usual, you get a freebie! Was there a previous T5W topic you are bummed you missed? Now would be a good time to do that topic!

I’ve decided to go with a topic that I missed when I was busy in Houston in January: Books You Disliked but Love to Discuss: Some books we disliked or they were just okay, but they still have a lot of discussion points to sink your teeth into.

820689The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I know, I’m practically the only feminist who isn’t crazy about Margaret Atwood, but I really, really do not like this book.  I know it’s deliberate, but I don’t like how the narrator is held at an arm’s length from the action, and how none of the reader’s questions about how and why this society formed are ever answered… it made for a very dissatisfying read for me.  And then there’s the fact that women of color are sidelined by the narrative while their own historical experiences (i.e., slavery) are appropriated for Offred’s narrative (a white woman)… I don’t know.  I think this book was progressive and important in a lot of ways when it was published in the 80s, but I’m not really sure that it holds up as the contemporary feminist bible that a lot of people see it as.  But I find it interesting to discuss, because I don’t think it’s a 100% perfect or a 100% worthless book – I think it has a lot to offer and a lot to critique.

59716To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  I will gladly talk to any and everyone about this book because I’m still waiting for someone to explain it to me.  I had to use Sparknotes when I read this (last year, when I was 24, holding a lit degree) and I still don’t even begin to understand half of what was going on here.  Someone please tell me what the lighthouse represents.

 

9889Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote.  I had to read this for a book club, and I thought it was tremendously boring.  And if there’s anything worse than reading a boring book, it’s reading a boring book for a book club.  But this ended up being one of the more interesting discussions we had, particularly because someone brought up the question of the narrator’s sexuality.  I remember reading this quickly and not putting too much brainpower into it, but I just assumed that the narrator was in love with Holly and it was a voyeuristic, male-gazey narrative… but then someone started talking about how they read the narrator as gay, and I started realizing just how much evidence there was to support that, and it added an entirely new dimension to the novel that I hadn’t even realized was there.  I still think it’s an interesting subject to ruminate on.

32283423American War by Omar El Akkad.  This is a book that tested my resolve to never DNF if ever I read one.  This was painfully dull and long-winded.  However, it did raise several rather interesting questions about the possibility of a second Civil War in the US, and I think it’s interesting to consider whether or not El Akkad’s vision for how this war would develop is a likely one.

 

22522805The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  As you know, I’m a pretty big fan of almost everything Kazuo Ishiguro has written, but this was easily my least favorite of his books.  What I didn’t like about it was that it took a simple concept that would have suited a short story, and inexplicably drew it out to fit a full-length novel.  Much boredom and repetition ensued.  But I do find the central concept fascinating, and I loved the ending a lot, so I’m glad to talk about this book as I do see the merits in it… it just wasn’t my favorite reading experience.

What books did you dislike that you still like to discuss?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah
★★★★☆
Spiegel & Grau, 2016

Born a Crime is a fantastically incisive and entertaining memoir about Trevor Noah’s childhood growing up in South Africa. It also made a great audiobook, as Noah narrates it himself, and he’s clearly a born performer and storyteller.

I loved the anecdotes that featured Noah’s childhood, particularly regarding his complicated relationship with his black mother and white father growing up under apartheid. It’s a great example of a memoir which mixes human interest with a focus on the sociopolitical backdrop, drawing connections between the two, though after a while I found that I was most interested in the sections of this book where Noah talked about apartheid and South African culture. The personal anecdotes added a warm and comedic touch, but Noah’s insights into the culture and history of his country were really what appealed to me about this memoir.

The shift in focus to his adolescence is what dropped this from 5 stars to 4 for me. A really strong opening gave way to a rather aimless middle section which devoted far too much time to exploits about bootlegging CDs and trying and failing to get a date. It eventually regains its footing and the final chapter in particular is excellent, but I felt my interest waning for a while there.

Another reason I’d recommend the audiobook is that the prose itself isn’t as polished as it could be. Noah has a tendency to deal in superlatives – I lost track of the number of times I heard a phrase like ‘I’d never been so scared in my life’ or ‘that was the happiest moment of my life.’ As anyone whose writing I have ever edited can attest, repetition is probably my biggest pet peeve, but it’s mercifully not quite as grating when you’re listening to Noah tell his own story with such passion.

Anyway, my few qualms aside, I did really enjoy this – I found it both entertaining and eye-opening. It’s a genuinely heartfelt memoir and I would recommend it very highly.

2018 Oscar Thoughts

Making one of my rare and unsolicited film posts because as of an hour ago I’ve seen all of the Oscar best picture nominees and as usual I have Things To Say.

I’ve decided to rank them by personal preference, from worst to best… but this is a very subjective list.

darkest-hour-one-sheet-600x888DARKEST HOUR
directed by: Joe Wright

Imperialist garbage that brings no depth or complexity or nuance or pathos to Churchill’s character.  And on top of that, it’s boring and utterly lifeless.  I expected to at least be grudgingly impressed by Oldman’s performance (grudgingly because I do not like him), but I was not.  I thought Churchill’s big speech was delivered better in a totally deadpan tone by Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk.  I’d rather see Denzel Washington, Daniel Kaluuya, or Daniel Day Lewis take home the Oscar, but obviously that’s not going to happen.  Oh well.  The only thing I enjoyed about this was Lily James being her normal adorable self.

post_xxlgTHE POST
directed by: Steven Spielberg

Listen, I am going to be completely honest here, I think I zoned out for a solid 70% of this movie and I had to have my friend explain to me what was going on.  This was a complete snoozefest, not helped along by Hanks and Streep essentially playing themselves and bringing no heart or passion to this story.  I don’t understand Spielberg’s direction, either – he tried to turn a simple story about tenacity and perseverance into a dramatic thriller, and the pieces didn’t add up.  That was 2 hours of my life wasted.

mv5bndk3ntewnjc0mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzyxntmwmzi-_v1_CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Okay, I apologize in advance because I know this is a #controversial opinion, but… I very much did not like this movie.  I did like the book (with a lot of reservations), but my dislike of the movie had nothing to do with ‘the book was better!!1!!’ (anyone who’s heard me talk about book to film adaptations knows I am NOT a stickler for book accuracy – and CMBYN was a rather faithful adaptation, so that wasn’t my problem).  But the way Elio and Oliver’s relationship translated to the screen made my skin crawl.  In the book, there’s a 7 year age gap between them – 17 and 24 – which, though legal in Italy, raises a lot of questions about the fundamentally imbalanced power dynamic when you have a relationship with an age gap like that.  In the film, Armie Hammer looks 30 and Timothee Chalamet looks 15.  That’s a 15 year age gap that’s visually being portrayed, which, in and of itself I’m not terribly comfortable with – but then the visual cues we get on top of that are so misguided without Elio’s accompanying commentary that we get in the book.  e.g., at one point in the book Oliver touches his shoulder and Elio pulls away because he finds it so arousing – we see that exact same scene in the film, but it just has such a predatory air to it since we don’t know why Elio is pulling away.  And I mean, aside from that, this movie is too long and meandering.  Good soundtrack, though.

shape_of_waterTHE SHAPE OF WATER
directed by: Guillermo del Toro

I always have such dispassionate reactions to Guillermo del Toro films, which is odd since, as you guys know, I love books and films that are just plain weird.  I mean, Yorgos Lanthimos is my favorite director, so that probably says a lot right there.  But del Toro’s brand of weirdness doesn’t quite match my own, I guess, because I always end up thinking ‘oh, that was good,’ but not quite feeling it.  That’s how I felt about The Shape of Water.  This film is beautifully constructed, wonderfully acted, compelling, strange, different, just… not really for me.  It was probably a bit too fairytale-like for my personal preferences.  But I still wouldn’t mind seeing it win.  del Toro is a passionate filmmaker with truly unique visions – I’d love to see him recognized for it.

mv5bmjg1ndy0ndyzmv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnziwmtewndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006761000_al_LADY BIRD
directed by: Greta Gerwig

I had the strangest reaction to Lady Bird.  I saw this movie twice – first at theatres then at home.  The first time I saw it, I loved it.  I related so much to the titular character and to her relationship with her mother in particular.  Obviously all coming of age movies have a certain formula to them and this one was no exception, but I found it so heartfelt and compelling and I saw so much of myself in it that I didn’t mind at all.  And then I saw it again, and… man, did this not hold up in a rewatch.  I don’t know what happened, but none of the passion I found in it the first time was there the second time.  I think it’s because it’s a film that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of depth.  It has a story to tell and it does it well, but it’s not the kind of film that has a lot to offer that’s lurking beneath the surface.  So, I never really know what to do with it in rankings like this.  I guess it’s fitting that it’s just floating somewhere in the middle.  Anyway, this was my hard reminder that not all films are made to be watched again and again.  I’d still die for Saoirse Ronan though.

phantom_thread_posterPHANTOM THREAD
directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

This film completely crept up on me.  It’s slow moving, and the first act sets up a rather formulaic story: older man falls in love with younger muse, they try to change each other, love perseveres.  And then that is just… not where it goes.  At all.  There’s such an undeniable artistry to this film’s construction – it was hard not to be compelled by the score and the top-tier performances.  And Alma is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever seen.

 

get_out_ver2GET OUT
directed by: Jordan Peele

One of the most important films made in recent years, which fearlessly tackles anti-black racism through a lens which specifically examines microaggressions.  And on top of that, it’s entertaining as hell.  It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s suspense, it’s just a damn good story, and I’d love to see it win best picture simply for the important conversations it’s started, both in and out of the film industry.

 

 

636259596029402722-billboardsposterTHREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
directed by: Martin McDonagh

Full disclosure: I’m a little biased.  I’ve been a huge fan of Martin McDonagh since I first saw In Bruges in 2008, which quickly became my favorite film of all time.  I’ve since read the majority of his plays, seen one of them performed live, seen all of his films multiple times, including his Oscar-winning short… anyway, I’m biased.  I love this man’s storytelling.  I love that he deals in complex morality – I love the almost surreal twisted fairytale quality to the darkness of his scripts.  I love that none of his characters are ever fully redeemed – we’re just shown glimmers of hope that maybe one day the cycle of anger and revenge can be broken.  I think that’s the point of Three Billboards – it’s not a straightforward redemption story like some think it is, and while I understand some of the backlash and criticisms, I still think it’s one of the most interesting and thought-provoking films I’ve seen in ages, and I’ve enjoyed really digging into these characters’ motives and divining their twisted moral compasses.

dunkirk_film_posterDUNKIRK
directed by: Christopher Nolan

Love, love, love.  I saw this three times in theatres and I cried a lot.  The sheer tension and heightened emotionality of this film is incredible.  I think one of the most annoying things you can say about a movie is ‘it’s not a film, it’s an experience’ so I’m trying to resist putting this into those words, but that’s basically what it comes down to.  This film really challenged everything I thought I knew about how to tell this kind of story.

 

And now, all this nonsense for the main categories, if you’re curious about my wants & predictions:

BEST PICTURE
Prediction: The Shape of Water
Want: Dunkirk or Get Out for very different reasons

BEST ACTOR
Prediction: Gary Oldman
Want: Denzel Washington

BEST ACTRESS
Prediction: Frances McDormand
Want: Margot Robbie

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Prediction: Sam Rockwell
Want: Sam Rockwell

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Prediction: Allison Janney
Want: Mary J. Blige

BEST DIRECTOR
Prediction: Guillermo del Toro
Want: Guillermo del Toro

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Prediction: Call Me By Your Name
Want: Mudbound

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Prediction: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Want: Get Out

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Prediction: Coco
Want: Loving Vincent

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Prediction: The Shape of Water
Want: The Killing of a Sacred Deer Dunkirk

ORIGINAL SCORE
Prediction: The Shape of Water
Want: Dunkirk

What do you guys think of this year’s Oscar nominations?  Comment and let me know!