1 "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's chilling dramatization of the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, is a timely and important reminder of the agonizing human price of zealotry. While it must be viewed as fiction, this solidly researched film is a taut, crackling geopolitical thriller of a new sort. It's all about what our spies think they know and why. The stellar Jessica Chastain gives us a deft portrait of the type of person who would follow this case down a rabbit hole.
2The trouble with aging hipsters is that they aren't capable of poking fun at themselves. Thank goodness "Portlandia" came along to do it for them. Season 3, airing Fridays on IFC, brings back characters such as gender-bending duo Nina and Lance and the owners of "Women and Women First" bookstore, who tangle with Martina Navratilova over her negative review on Yelp. Some of the sketches go on too long and not all are LOL, but creators and stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein haven't yet exhausted their reserve of spoof-worthy pretensions (like using all-natural deodorant that doesn't work: "It Smells Like You!").
3 "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" is a grand love story -- a tragic romance that offers the rare glimmer of a second chance. As the inaugural offering in the Broadway Re-Imagined series, director Peter Rothstein's "Aida" finds its strength in songs, performance and spectacle. Cat Brindisi as ditzy princess Amneris and Ben Bakken as villainous Zoser stand out. Bravo to Theatre Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust for pushing the envelope with this compelling production at the Pantages. www.hennepintheatretrust.org.
4 There's a reason why Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" showed up on a couple of best-of-2012 lists. The novel is clever, witty and laugh-out-loud funny. And that's a rare and wonderful thing. It's the story of a Seattle family -- Bernadette, an architect, married to a Steve Jobs-like Microsoft genius, and their daughter, Bee, who narrates the story. Her narration is augmented by letters, e-mails, school memos and other documents, each one pitch-perfect. Semple skewers all things Seattle -- its architecture, politeness, humble smugness, even its traffic -- while bringing to life a family in (hilarious) crisis.
5 Ex-Minnesotan rockers Free Energy's long-awaited sophomore record, "Love Sign," arrives Tuesday in the dead of January with a decidedly July-like mix of breezy, baked pop hooks and top-down, fists-up '70s rock guitars. Even with a sharp change in producers -- from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy on their first album to Hold Steady and Sonic Youth cohort John Agnello here -- the Philadelphia quintet maintains its winningly timeless formula.