1 In "'71," for the second time this winter, Jack O'Connell stars in a viscerally honest film about war as hell that speaks more through action and emotion than words. Clearly we are watching the beginning of a big-name career ("Unbroken" was his other impressive film). This time the setting is Northern Ireland, at the height of its sectarian Troubles. "This is the front lines, boys," says an officer explaining Belfast's tribal geography. "Catholics and Protestants living side by side, at each other's throats."
2 Think of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" as the love child of "Parks and Recreation" and "30 Rock" — which is not surprising, as it was created by Tina Fey. The effervescent Netflix comedy overcomes what could be an off-putting premise (young woman tries to make it in New York City after 15 years held captive by a cult leader) on the strength of the unrelenting sunniness of Ellie Kemper as Kimmy and a hilarious supporting cast, including Jane Krakowski.
3 In "Death Tax" at Pillsbury House Theatre, Regina Marie Williams and Wendy Lehr lead a cast that breathes life into the story of a wealthy nursing home resident fixated on her lucre as time ticks down. She enlists her nurse in a cash-incentive plan: keep the old lady alive until the new year, when tax changes will reduce the amount her daughter can claim. The ideas in "Death Tax" are not profound, yet seeing them illustrated in real humanity reminds us that day is coming. pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org
4 Minnesotans will warm up to Brandi Carlile's "The Firewatcher's Daughter" not just because she has played some of these new songs in concert here but because this album is as heartwarming and vibrant as her live performances. There's a newfound looseness on the footstomping "Mainstream Kid" and the Beatle-y rocker "Alibi" not heard on her other albums. And even the kiss-off tunes, including "Heroes and Songs" and "Wilder (We're Chained)," land softly because of their sheer folk-rock prettiness.
5 Abigail Thomas' new memoir, "What Comes Next and How to Like It," is a fast, poignant read, a counterpoint to her wonderful but tragic "A Three Dog Life" (about her husband's car accident and memory loss). Here she writes with humor and honesty about growing old and facing with humor and stoicism (and sometimes sadness) loss, betrayal, love, art and, of course, dogs. Thomas invariably gets right at the heart of things in her crystalline, sensible, beautiful prose.