The advantage of editing L.A. Weekly's arts and culture critics, as opposed to being one, is that I don't have to see everything. I do have to be culturally engaged, and my position affords me certain privileges of access. But, like most of you, I can simply drift towards something that sounds interesting, and then miss or not know about (or know then forget about) something else. I kick myself for missing a play that a friend tells me later was not-to-be-missed, and I hope (but may fail) to make it to The Imitation Game in the theater and may have to settle for seeing it on a four-inch screen on Virgin America.
All of which makes my list of top 21 cultural experiences seem a little arbitrary as compared to critics' year-end lists. To help, I’ve only included experiences that are universally accessible. I’ve eliminated anything outside of Southern California, including a standup lineup at the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai, headlined by the incredible Aditi Mittal, and an outdoor film in Rome that projected images onto Trajan’s Forum to show how it used to look. I’ve also eliminated articles, restaurants and anything particularly outdated, like catching up on Friday Night Lights.
My list is in order, starting with the best. Feel free to put your own favorite cultural experiences in the comments — yours will be just as revealing as mine.
Improvised Shakespeare Company at Largo
This was my second time seeing this Chicago-based company, and I continue to be blown away by how the five members combine the tasks of creating great improv, conjuring the structure of a Shakespeare play from scratch and, yes, rhyming the lines. As laugh-out-loud funny as it was, the most brilliant moments were the serious ones, when a character starts a scene musing on some topic or other, or a minor, gravedigger-style comic relief character emerges, and you think, yes, that’s just like a Shakespeare play. The group’s pre-curtain speech emphasizing that this performance is made up on the spot is slow and deliberate — perhaps because they’ve come across too many people who simply do not believe it.
My dive into Bollywood movies
To research my L.A. Weekly article on how entertainment is a force for social justice in India, I saw a number of Hindi films in which the genre’s typically extreme emotions led to something unexpectedly transfixing. The best was Rajkumar Hirani’s 2009 3 Idiots, which had the comedy of a well-made college satire and the emotional scope of an epic. Some smart producer should adapt it for the U.S. I also enjoyed Peepli Live, about a peasant who decides to kill himself so that his family will get government money to save his farm, which was reminiscent of Being There; Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Hirani’s romantic comedy about a gangster who starts to abide by Gandhi’s teachings; and Shuddh Desi Romance, which upends stereotypes of Indian relationships and weddings.
Buyer and Cellar at the Mark Taper Forum
I would tell people, “I don’t like solo shows,” and they would tell me, “But you’ll like this one.” Jonathan Tolins’ play starred Michael Urie as an actor recounting his experience getting hired to be a shopkeeper in the fake mall Barbra Streisand built below her house. It goes down like candy and serves as a counterargument to the L.A. ethos of fame as the be all and end all.
Audiobooks like Flash Boys and Behind the Beautiful Forevers not only prevented me from looking at my phone but also made driving in L.A. more pleasurable than it has any right to be. Many thanks to various episodes of podcasts like Freakonomics Radio and Planet Money, and of course Serial, which was compelling not only for its “did he or didn’t he” question but for the way it brought me back to my own hazy memories of lazy after-school sports practices and wanderings, which were just 40 miles and one year removed from the podcast’s Maryland setting.
In contrast to the emotional extremes of most other Bollywood movies, and my trip to chaotic India itself, The Lunchbox was staggeringly low-key. The film’s intriguing MacGuffin is Mumbai’s dabbawala service, which delivers lunches from wives in the kitchen to husbands at work. The scene in which the bewildered protagonist opened the lunchbox that had been delivered to him by accident — kicking off a correspondence with its maker that anchors the film — was a slow, mouthwatering tease. This film felt like Wall-E — the central relationship is a sign of real life in a world that’s turned everyone into drones.
Arguendo at REDCAT
Like Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s staging of the entire Great Gatsby text that came to REDCAT in 2012, the best part of the company’s Arguendo was the source material. The show made Supreme Court oral arguments seem way more interesting than I’d imagined. Yes, this oral argument had the advantage of being about nude dancers and their right to free speech, but it’s fascinating to see which justices poke holes at what and how each lawyer swats away each inquiry. Plus, seeing extremely smart experts disagree makes plain the impenetrability of society's moral obstacles and the flat-out bizarreness of our judicial system — which ERS emphasized by introducing just the right bit of stage chaos. It’s one of the handful of works of experimental theater I’ve seen that I can truly say I enjoyed rather than just appreciated.
Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis at the Alex Theatre
In this Live Talks L.A. discussion, Gladwell bowed down to Lewis so much it could have come off as cloying false modesty. But his decision to run straight at the comparison between them opened up a fascinating discussion about their differences, such as single-narrative books, which Gladwell says he could never do, versus books that are splintered among many different stories in the service of a single idea. The most revelatory line came when Gladwell recognized the moral power of Lewis’ books, citing not just his high-stakes Wall Street books The Big Short and Flash Boys but also Moneyball, because it was about a fight to recognize certain people’s true worth. This is, in fact, a trait that could be applied to a lot of what culture writers aspire to do: While our topics may seem frivolous, we try to spotlight or validate people or ideas whose true worth has not yet been recognized.
Slow in parts, quite touching in others, Richard Linklater’s movie famously filmed over 12 years was memorable for how it felt like life as lived, without fanfare or clear lessons, which of course was the whole point. The highlight was seeing how every year, Ethan Hawke seems like he’s having a blast.
Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson
In this controversially streamlined production, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival on Broadway, purists were rankled by how fast the songs were. But in the eyes of this Porgy first-timer, Diane Paulus’ production didn’t need to be any slower — its run time, just over two and a half hours, seemed about right. Porgy is as convincing and moving of an argument I've seen for the ultimate triumph of pure goodness over a world of base temptations, and for the dignity of an ordinary life, no matter how destitute. The traditionalists may weep, but a more drawn-out version would not have made such an impact.
It’s more hip to like Game of Thrones and The Americans, and I’m way behind on Orange Is the New Black and Homeland, but Mad Men has kept its hold on me, perhaps because of the way it melds work and life, a trait of my favorite romantic comedies.
I was disturbed by how this story ultimately felt like the result of the actions of one crazy person, which dulled whatever critique it’s supposed to make of the institution of marriage, and yet it was a gripping ride. Gone Girl, along with phenomena like Serial, Ferguson and Bill Cosby, shaped the year’s biggest theme in American culture: a lack of faith of our justice system.
Tosca at St. James Methodist Church
In Pacific Opera Project’s production (full disclosure: I know the artistic director), the audience, actors and orchestra traveled to three different locations in the church for each of the three acts: the sanctuary, a stage and an outdoor courtyard. The settings accentuated the story, and the incredible quality of the voices stayed consistent through the night.
Into the Woods at the Old Globe
The show that movingly mixes fairy tales with Stephen Sondheim’s trademark cynicism got a nicely pared-down, “Let’s just put on a show”-style production, which is now headed Off-Broadway. I also enjoyed the Into the Woods reunion of its original cast and creators at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, especially Sondheim’s revelation that the woods is an allegory for the Bronx. I also liked — to a lesser extent — the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills (fun but trying a bit too hard) and the film version (the hokiness of the plot came through a bit more).
Pop-up Magazine at the Ace Hotel
Theater and journalism — if you can’t tell, I’m somewhat fond of both — came together in the first L.A. edition of this popular San Francisco series in which nonfiction storytellers present short works onstage. The most compelling were Jon Ronson on how a dongle joke got a guy fired, Jon Mooallem on a chauffeur who picks people up from jail and Jessica Dimmock’s short film on two brothers who each didn’t know the other was secretly a transgender woman.
Cock at Rogue Machine
Arranging the stage in the round, with the actors just a few feet from our eyes, added power to Mike Bartlett’s play in which man leaves his boyfriend for a woman, and the two eventually go to battle over the man’s sexual identity. Some may have found the protagonist annoyingly passive, but the play could also be read as an exploration (and maybe defense) of indecision.
The Lego Movie
This was pure fun, especially in the way the ridiculousness seemed to satirize dystopic films (a character named “President Business,” for example). Plus I loved the risky twist in the third act that brought everything together.
Rosario Dawson played a journalist who followed around Chris Rock’s movie star character, and I smile when I think of how great an article she must have written after the movie ended. The film was a little unconvincing in its depiction of journalism, and it started slow. But it paid off in the second half, especially a cameo by the rapper DMX, a perfect Chris Rock-ization of the jail scene in Sullivan’s Travels. Top Five is probably the work on this list I’d most like to see again.
WGN America’s first scripted show (full disclosure: I’ve worked with the creator) made physics gripping by merging it with geopolitics and the scientists’ family secrets.
Luna Gale at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
And child services became gripping in Rebecca Gilman’s play, which had the most gasp-inducing first-act ending since Proof. The story was a fight over custody of a child between the seemingly irresponsible young parents and a religious grandmother, but the most compelling figure was the strong-willed bureaucrat trying to do the right thing.
The Magic Flute at the Broad Stage
The story’s sharp, second-act turn makes this legendary opera somehow feel like a first draft, which still bugged me in this production, but South Africa’s Isango Ensemble breathed new life into the music, with an orchestra consisting of eight marimbas.
A screening and Q&A I saw at LACMA was far too short-and-sweet, but this show stands out for the way its sketches address spoofs real things happening in our actual lives. Compare it to Saturday Night Live, which tries to be topical and often goes for the too-obvious, or tries to be universal and has no bite. The most memorable Portlandia sketch starred Steve Buscemi as a marketer for celery competing against his cutthroat, vegetable-hawking colleagues, one of which managed to secure a deal for Virgin airlines to offer brussels sprouts “as a dessert.”
Honorable mention, in no particular order: Spring Awakening, which I didn’t love on Broadway, but Deaf West brought out the best of it at Inner City Arts; The Daily Show, a highlight of which was Jason Jones’ investigation of Google Glass, one of the funniest things I saw all year; The Colbert Report's final episodes; The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at the Broad Stage’s Edye space, which was turned into a pub for the occasion; Choir Boy at the Geffen Playhouse a poignant play about homophobia in a prep school, by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Ebenezer, an immersive Christmas Carol at Golden Road Brewing, in which I got to strike up conversations with the characters at the bar; Pacific Opera Project’s modernizations of La Calisto and La Boheme; and a scent concert at Hammer Museum, in which I sat blindfolded and took a “trip to Japan” via smells piped into the room.