Best Fantasy Show 2013 | Plato's Retreat | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Conjuring up imaginary worlds, especially Utopia, has always been popular, but there is also plenty of art involving dystopian visions, where the imaginary world is terrible — or at least difficult. Susan Meyer's evocatively titled Plato's Retreat — named for a swingers' club in New York that was closed in the face of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s — was dominated by two crowded miniature "cities" made of stacked acrylic sheets in forms that looked both ancient and futuristic. These cities were populated by little people and accented with clear plastic windows and actual living plants. The tiny worlds — intelligent conceptual takes on doll houses — show that Meyer is really on to something.

Disappointed by open-mic nights at bars frequented by judgmental drunk dudes, writer Erica Adams and artist/musician Sara Century created Baby Hair, a monthly night at Deer Pile that encourages queer and female artists to step on stage. Unlike open mics that center on just comedy or poetry, Baby Hair is more free-form: On any given second Tuesday, artists perform everything from narrated text-message conversations to PowerPoint presentations about psychedelic mushrooms, all in a safe community space.

The Denver Jewish Film Festival is about much more than Jewish themes, Jewish directors, Jewish actors or even Jewish storylines. Nothing is off limits in this smartly curated festival, which brings together movies that cross cultures, topics and lifestyles. For its seventh season, the festival showed films ranging from A.K.A. Doc Pomus, a documentary on an unsung songwriter, to Melting Away, the saga of a transgendered child's family struggles. Bigger and better, this year's JFF filled the newly renovated Elaine Wolf Theatre with a twelve-day don't-miss event for film buffs of all denominations.

We always like to see our homegrown talent on national TV, and when standup extraordinaire Adam Cayton-Holland landed a spot on Conan O'Brien's show in January, his fans tuned in to watch. Cayton-Holland even made it to the couch, but not before he quipped about, among other dandy topics, why we shouldn't name children after cities lest they become strippers and why Wendy's new slogan is like testicular cancer. Watch it, Adam: It's lonely at the top.

For more than thirty years, Marilyn Megenity's Mercury Cafe has given this city a movable feast of good works, good food and good entertainment — much of it free. For the last two decades, the Merc has been doing it from the edge of downtown, in an area that was once sketchy and is now heading toward respectability. And you'll find both sketchy and respectable types at the Merc, where first-date diners sit next to Occupy meetings and poetry slams collide with tango lessons and live shows in the underground community space. From morning 'til night, you'll find everything from dance to yoga, jazz to cello, with no charge for many programs. And the food, if not free, is locally sourced and made with care. Just eavesdropping on the conversation one table over could qualify as the best free entertainment in town — but at the Merc, there's always some rising talent on display, too. And if you don't like any of that, you can always grab a free book from one of the Mercury's shelves.

One Wednesday afternoon, hours before he was to perform a sold-out gig at Red Rocks, Jack White casually tweeted the secret location of a free show that had been rumored but seemed too good to be true. But it was true: The performance, which took place at Isdajo Automotive on West Colfax, drew a throng of excited fans who crowded into the small parking lot to watch the former White Stripes frontman play a few songs. White was gone almost as quickly as he came, but the memories from that monumental day live on.

Eric Gruneisen

Skip "The Funktologist" Reeves, who hosts KZKO's Funk Above the Rest show, knows the funk inside and out. If the dude had his way, Denver would be one city under a groove. So it made sense when Reeves set up shop at Jazz@Jack's five or so years ago and started his own funk night there. It's still one of the few places in town where you're guaranteed to hear the best in funk and soul on a weekly basis.

Scott Lentz

GroundSwell would be a great gallery regardless of its location: Gallery curators Rebecca Peebles and Danette Montoya earned a Westword MasterMind award this year for opening an intimate viewing room that doubles as an arts incubator and a haven where artists can show more daring or experimental work. Since they opened GroundSwell, Peebles and Montoya have hosted everything from Andrew Novick's pie-in-the-face show Food Face to a recent group show by both emerging and more established local artists. But there's also a certain urban charm in the fact that they've joined forces with one of our city's growing retail industries, albeit one still a little on the edge. The mingled businesses rock the Colfax vibe, a state of being that inspires cereal bars and taquerias, poetry readings and street-corner prophets...and a wonderful community of budding artists.

Two separate themes connected the artists in The Other Primary Colors, a group show at Space Gallery. First, as indicated by the title, all of them used neutral shades. And second, they all created pieces in the context of contemporary abstraction, with everything owing a debt to either minimalism or pattern painting. Guest curator for this show was Marks Aardsma (who dropped her first name, Jo, for the outing), who invited a wonderful roster of fellow travelers to join her in the realm of conceptual abstraction. That list included Tonia Bonnell, Nancy Koenigsberg, Carlene Frances, Corey Postiglione, David Sawyer and Space owner Michael Burnett. Elegant and impressive, the show lent an unexpected contemplative quality to the sometimes raucous gallery.

Michael Brohman, who teaches sculpture at the University of Colorado Denver, is known for being outrageous. For his solo Place, mounted in fall 2012, the longtime Pirate co-op member presented some never-before-seen works that he'd done during a residency at the Jentel Foundation in Banner, Wyoming. The works, mostly made of found materials, represent contemporary takes on Western themes, like the screen door with the missing cross brace that brilliantly expresses its title, "Horizon." Brohman's often been on the cutting edge, so even if Western-style contemporary art is one of the latest crazes, it's important to remember that he's been at it for more than five years.

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