The 2017 Academy Awards ceremony will live in infamy as the year that Warren Beatty announced the wrong freaking Best Picture winner (our mouths remain agape), but the metro Phoenix theater community will remember it as the time a local director was thanked from the winner's podium. Emma Stone won Best Actress for her role in La La Land, and among the list of people she mentioned in her speech was Bobb Cooper, producing artistic director of Valley Youth Theatre. Stone, a Scottsdale native, performed in a number of VYT productions as a child before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 15 to pursue big-time acting dreams. We must admit, we felt a thrill of local pride not only to see the first Arizona-born actor take home an Oscar, but to hear her give love to one of our own.

Damon Dering is a talented director and the founder of and driving force behind one of our town's best alt theaters. He chooses mostly provocative and underproduced gems, and has helmed some of the better productions in Phoenix theater history. But it's Dering's heartfelt and amusing curtain speeches that continue to stay with us. Few troupes offer much more than an annoying prerecorded welcome ("... and if you're going to unwrap any hard candy, do it now!") these days, but Dering continues to receive his audiences with personal stories about the production we're about to see. He's shameless about asking for support, fearless when admitting how tough it can be to work as an artist these days, and effusive in his praise of casts and crews and those who bother to come out to see what they've created. Perhaps a festival of Dering's 30 best curtain speeches is in order for next season.

Spring Awakening is a 2006 rock musical based on an 1891 German play, a coming-of-age story that hits hard on themes like sex education, homosexuality, suicide, teen pregnancy, and abuse. Not your typical high school production. It was amazing to consider the timelessness of the themes, and, frankly, a little unnerving to see them brought to life by kids. But everything from the acting to the singing to the staging of this production was top-notch — including the "talk back" portion after the play, designed to address stirred-up feelings. Bravo to ASA for taking a risk and nailing the results.

Written and performed by Rubén C. González, Arizona Theatre Company's production of La Esquinita, USA peeked at a once-booming American border town, the kind in which the poor and undereducated find themselves trapped between prosperity and failure. Fast-paced and often funny, this one-act offered a series of intertwined monologues, each brought vividly to life with a minimum of costuming or contrivance by Gonzalez, a student of the London Academy for the Performing Arts. With crafty posturing and jargony Spanglish, he created real people whose truth-talking was infused with street slang and cautious profanity. Gonzalez wisely resisted a tidy "Let's make lemonade!" approach to the harrowing death of the American factory town, and managed to make a story drenched in fear and hopelessness that was both entertaining and poetic.

Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson's tidy one-act isn't perfect, but it offers interesting perspective and burnishes its rough edges with some real literary style. And in the case of Black Theatre Troupe's production of Rasheeda Speaking, the cast and their director offset the script's soft spots with sturdy acting and an obvious affection for the material. In the lead, Lillie Richardson gave an almost maniacally jovial performance as a smart-tongued schemer. Her big speech toward the end of the play, in which she talks about riding the bus with white-collar white men, was an acting class in stage subtlety. Katie McFadzen made a convincing leap from confident to cowed, and both performances were polished by direction from Matthew Wiener.

Billy Elliot: The Musical is, of course, the one about the 11-year-old boy who wants to study dance in a small village in northeastern England where guys are expected to learn boxing. Its Phoenix Theatre production had plenty going for it: Maria Amorocho's showstopping take on "Grandma's Song"; Ross Nemeth's joyful performance as Michael; and Sam Hay's skillful choreography, which made even non-dancers appear poised. But it was Matthew Dean's magnificent Billy that one remembers. His en pointe was polished, his singing superb, and "Angry Dance," in which he exploded into a ball of fury (because no one in County Durham is as angry as a kid who wants to demi-plie but can't), was worth, as the saying goes, the price of admission.

Set in New York circa 1928, Eugene O'Neill's Hughie takes us to a dim, gloomy corner of a dank lobby in a crummy hotel, where a sad old guy won't stop talking to a night clerk who's only half-listening. iTheatre Collaborative's excellent production was especially notable for Greg Lutz's performance as Erie, a shady grifter down on his luck since the death of the lamented night clerk in this fleabag hotel. Hughie is really an hourlong monologue delivered by a sad sack, and Lutz filled him with bluster and melancholy. In lesser hands, this peculiar mix of emotions might have been sentimental or pathetic, but Lutz as Erie was neither — and he broke our hearts.

As far as escapist entertainment goes, there's nothing like a mindless action movie. And they don't get much more mindless than Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of director Michael Bay's steel-crunching, ear-splitting franchise. Viewers in Arizona, however, will have more to watch for than just the blizzard of special effects. Parts of the movie were filmed in Arizona, including scenes at Luke Air Force Base, a junkyard, and stretches of Loop 303 and State Route 88. During the shooting of Transformers, 300 people made Arizona their home for three weeks last summer. Star Mark Wahlberg had nothing but good things to say about his temporary home, calling the state "amazing" in a farewell Instagram post. We appreciate it, Mark — don't worry about what those film critics have to say.

In the blazing hot Arizona summer, it's probably best to restrict one's moviegoing to traditional indoor theaters. But when the temperature drops and we can bear to be outside again, Street Food Cinema is our movie experience of choice. The concept, which began in California and headed east to Phoenix in 2016, brings together classic films, local music, and food trucks for a thoroughly satisfying night of entertainment. Phoenix's events are held from fall through early summer at Steele Indian School Park in central Phoenix, where cinephiles bring a blanket or chair to sit on and watch films like Mean Girls, Edward Scissorhands, Dirty Dancing, and Back to the Future on a giant inflatable screen. Local acts MRCH, Celebration Guns, and The Senators have provided tunes for the series, and past food truck participants include favorites like Cousins Maine Lobster and Waffle Luv.

Pollack Tempe Cinemas

There's an inherent joy in seeing relatively recent film releases on the cheap, but visiting East Valley real estate mogul Michael Pollack's Pollack Tempe Cinemas is an experience in itself. Bathed in strange, purple light, the theater serves as a home for a huge chunk of Pollack's collection of pop culture ephemera. Life-size statues of Spock, Darth Vader, and Jar Jar Binks? Check. An animatronic band of pirates? Also check. Pollack's peculiar aesthetic drives the feel of the place, featuring vintage tin lunchboxes with '70s cartoon characters alongside giant photos of Pollack's lion's mane of hair posed next to former President George Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. It's a one-of-a-kind place, the kind of place worth scoping out even if you don't catch a matinee of that superhero flick you missed when it was in regular theaters a few months ago.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of