Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum is distinguished by its thoughtful, imaginative approach to showing works by local, national, and international artists. Its solo and group exhibitions often feature women artists and artists of color, bringing much-needed diversity to the art scene. We never tire of seeing the museum's El Mac mural depicting an immigrant from Guatemala holding a lovely long-stemmed rose. Expect to see not only traditional works of art here, but also murals painted on gallery walls, rows of mounted skate decks, and large-scale installations created with offbeat materials like plastic bags. Best of all, the museum routinely exhibits work by such local artists as Rachel Bess, Colin Chillag, Joe Willie Smith, Marilyn Szabo, and Fred Tieken. They even throw fabulous season openings where art, live music, and conversation converge to create a strong sense of community.

MIM

Don't make any plans for immediately after you visit the Musical Instrument Museum, because you'll want to spend the whole day there. With more than 7,000 instruments from 200-plus countries and territories, you'll be kicking yourself if you rush the experience. The Artist Gallery downstairs showcases instruments from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Maroon 5, and more, or you can become a rock star in your own right, jamming out on the guitar, a Native American communal drum, or a Peruvian harp in the interactive Experience Gallery. If you'd rather listen to the professionals, check out the concert calendar offering music from every genre.

Heard Museum

This year saw two blockbuster exhibitions on pre-Colombian Mexican art come to the Valley. The Phoenix Art Museum wowed with its "Teotihuacan: City of Fire, City of Water," showing off ancient artifacts recently uncovered at the famed Mesoamerican city. Yet it was the smaller "Josef Albers in Mexico" show imported by the Heard Museum from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York that really impressed us. The exhibition delves into the Bauhaus artist's travels through the same Mesoamerican ruins plumbed by "Teotihuacan." But by displaying the painter's simple, colorful modernist paintings alongside photos and sketches, it shows how the works of these ancient societies still resonate, inspiring artists across time and space.

Desert Botanical Garden

If the purpose of art is to change one's perspective, the "Electric Desert" light and sound exhibition at Desert Botanical Garden checked all the boxes. The international Klip Collective created seven site-specific installations, setting them in various garden locations to magnificent effect. Through lights conveying a sense of movement, cactus gardens appeared to undulate, leaving viewers feeling they were witnessing a magical underwater dance of coral. Rather than disguising the desert's own natural shapes, patterns, and textures, the collective amplified the organic properties of desert plants while adding new visual layers, with intriguing results. For skeptics who worry that technology is sapping interest in the natural world, the exhibit revealed technology's potential to draw attention back to the environment and its myriad wonders.

If you're looking for a barometer for what wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards, film festivals are not that place (come on, Green Book? Really?). If you're looking for a movie that you'll actually enjoy, then the Phoenix Film Festival has something to scratch your itch. Opening night of this year's festival featured a Q & A session with Joe Berlinger, director of the hit Netflix movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile before it premiered on the streaming service. There are even nights dedicated to nerd and genre films for those repulsed by awards bait. Because the event takes place entirely at Harkins Scottsdale 101, chances are you'll run into the person behind that little documentary you caught earlier in the afternoon at the concession stand. For Valley cinephiles, there is no experience like it.

You don't have to make the six-hour drive to Hollywood to get your independent film made. The Independent Film Project (IFP) here in Phoenix has a vast number of resources. There is the Monthly Movie Meeting (held most months), where filmmakers can showcase their work and receive feedback. Another monthly event is Filmmaker Fusion, where a topic is discussed with special guests and, afterward, attendees are encouraged to network. Two filmmaker challenges are held every year: the Beat the Clock Challenge and the Breakout Challenge. Both events come with the opportunity to have the participants' work seen on the big screen. The monthly meetings are free of charge, but there is a tiered annual membership you can choose to purchase to receive other benefits and discounts. Grab your camera, polish your script, and check out everything you can do right here in town.

Pollack Tempe Cinemas

Let's face it, dropping a Hamilton or more to see a movie is a gamble nowadays, especially when you can see practically everything on a streaming service. Local real estate developer Michael Pollack also took a chance when he purchased this discount theater more than 15 years ago. The lobby, drowned in neon pink, is a cross between a museum and a kitschy gift shop you would find along Hollywood Boulevard with an array of video games, animatronics, and wax sculptures of cinema icons from long ago. You wouldn't expect an experience like this when you're only dropping $3.50 to watch a flick you could easily rent on iTunes, but Pollack usually can be found in the lobby on a Friday night to ensure you get a little more than you paid for.

FilmBar

A good movie theater — one with character and a selection of films that someone actually took time to curate — is hard to find. Fortunately, Phoenix has FilmBar, an independent theater that shows the latest indie hits (think Booksmart), cult classics (name another theater that shows Donnie Darko), and foreign, local, or downright different films (such as Loving Vincent, animated in the style of Van Gogh). Just inside FilmBar is a bar with a selection of craft beers, plus popcorn and tamales — try finding those at a commercial theater. Inside the theater, choose between plush, velvet-cushioned seats or a table in the back for a proper place to eat those tamales. FilmBar is a beacon of light in the soulless sea of chain theaters around the Valley, and at about $10 a head, tickets are some of the best-priced in town.

Luxury theaters with reserved seating, fancy food, and bars are becoming de rigueur around town these days, but we still love heading to Camelview for both critically acclaimed indies and long-anticipated blockbusters. The sound and projection rival any other multiplex in town, and the reclining chairs are still well-maintained after cradling the butts of movie fans for nearly four years. After seeing that heady horror flick, you can grab a drink and step out on the scenic patio to discuss what the heck you just saw. The popcorn will always be overpriced, but you can see where those extra dollars in the admission price went.

Burton Barr Central Library

The best libraries lure readers not only with books, but with a profound sense of community. That's exactly what happens at this flagship branch of the Phoenix Public Library. Community members gather for lively discussions of civic issues inside the auditorium; for art exhibits featuring works by emerging and established artists; and for shared experiences in spaces focused on topics ranging from maker culture to workplace skills. Children have their own cheerful space, where books provide solace and a sense of wonder. Teens have an area for self-expression and conversation. For people who love history and literature, the Rare Book Room is a welcoming space. And the annual used-book sale is one of the community's best-loved traditions. Throughout the library, Will Bruder's designs assure that visitors are enveloped in light and soaring architectural elements that reinforce the primacy of learning in the course of human civilization.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of