She's only just arrived in Houston, but Mikelle Johnson is already making a name for herself. The Yale graduate first starred as a disenfranchised teenager in Big Death, Little Death, Catastrophic Theatre's opening show. Then she moved on to darker subject matter in Stages's Mr. Marmalade, the cautionary tale about raising kids in America. And Johnson was brilliant as the precocious four-year-old Lucy, a child living in a dangerous imaginary world shaped by violent images from television. All elbows and knees, Johnson found the awkward grace of a child without resorting to trite silliness. Her Lucy was very much her own person, and Johnson broke our hearts as the lonely little girl with the dark imagination.

In the early morning hours of May 11, Houston lost a dear friend. Fifty-one-year-old Tom Jones, curator and spokesperson for the Art Car Museum, was basking in the glow of ­another successful Art Car Parade, chatting with friends outside the museum after the traditional Illuminated Cruise, when a drunk driver hit a parked car, which in turn hit Jones and pinned him under it. He later died at Ben Taub during surgery. Though he was intrinsic to daily operations at the Art Car ­Museum, as well as dedicated to his own pursuits as an artist and as a champion of the Art Car "lifestyle," Jones was probably best known for his trademark "Swamp Mutha," a 1982 Chevy Monte Carlo layered in ­provocative ­imagery and adorned with all ­manner of swampy ­critters. A symbol of the ­urban ­frontier, "Swamp Mutha" now ­symbolizes Jones's unique contribution to Houston's cultural ­history. A proponent of individuality to the end, one of his last statements on record, taped during a video interview before the 2008 Art Car Parade, summed up his work and hopefully his legacy. "Keep America's roads weird," he said. We'll sure try, Tom.

We're giving Sarah Tollemache top honors this year despite her recent move to New York. The comedian spent a better part of the year here and was even featured on the Houston edition of Last Comic Standing's season six. Tollemache amassed more laughs around town in less than a year than most joke-slingers would in two. Whether she's flying solo or part of an improv comedy troupe, she manages to give the audience fits. Thanks to some investigating (read: MySpace stalking), we know her family still lives in Houston, so we're guessing — and hoping — she'll drop back in sooner than later to wax hysterical about video games, sharing porno with her boyfriend and cheap prosthetic limbs. But don't be surprised if you see her before then on Letterman or Conan.

There's nothing fake about K-Rino — all of this Southside rapper's street tales positively peal with hard-earned authenticity. Although he has been in the game longer than almost everybody else in Houston, K-Rino has never seen fit to coast or ride on his own coattails. His lyrical ability and flow are matched by few, not just in Houston or the Dirty South, but the entire world. All of which helps explain why you won't hear his dangerous mind showcased on commercial radio — he's a dominator, not the lowest common denominator.

Poison Girl

Good writers? Check. Alcohol? Oh, check! The folks behind the Poison Pen Reading Series took their cue from greats like Dylan Thomas and Hunter S. Thompson and set up literary shop in a bar. Normally, the idea of poetry and bars sounds like a surefire way to get stuck at an open-mike listening to some guy describe how his first time was like riding a unicorn out of a burning bush, but the Poison Pen organizers keep the mike regulated with their own selections — and you won't be disappointed. There's always a refreshing mix of upcoming and seasoned writers from Houston and beyond. And the ambiance allows for an experience that's as enjoyable for bookworms as it is for drunks (and even better for combinations of the two).

Scratch-off lottery tickets can be a great gambling fix. There's something about the physical act of furiously scratching that makes you feel like you're gambling real hard. Taking that to the next level is the Texas Hold 'Em Poker scratch-off, which allows a double fix: poker and lotto. For $5, you can "play" five hands, then scratch off the community cards to see if you've won. The game is sponsored by the World Poker Tour, and the ticket allows you to enter a drawing for stuff like a World Poker Tour duffle bag or poker table. For extra fun, yell "All in!" before you scratch the river card.

Big Top Lounge

Let Midtown get as gentrified as it can, certainly not a problem these days, but walking into the Big Top ("No phone, no pool, no pets") will always feel like being transported back to 1976. A toy store once upon a time — supposedly the place that provided the inspiration for Toys "R" Us mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe, no less — the Big Top retains its playtime theme in everything from the circus-themed paintings on the walls, leftover toys behind the bar and the circus-parade grillwork and elephant-trunk door handles out front. It's easily one of the darkest bars in town and, whether you're bellied up to the bar on one of the plush barstools or sunk into one of the booths, one of the most comfortable. The satellite radio is stuck on Sirius's '70s station, and frequent musical guests such as Peter & James (soft-rock piano/guitar request kings), the Light Rock Express (famous for their "Takin' It to the Streets" processional) and the Allison Fisher Band (vintage Gulf Coast R&B) keep the retro vibe intact without ever needing to fall back on the crutch of kitsch.

Landmark River Oaks Theatre

The River Oaks Theatre is one of a kind in Houston. Built in 1939 in ornate Art Deco style, it's the only movie palace left in the city. Of course, the films shown now are slightly racier than the theater's inaugural screening, Bachelor Mother with David Niven and Ginger Rogers. Today there are regular showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other cult classics during the theater's popular midnight movie series. Recent features include documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), dramas (Brick Lane), comedies (Animal House in a midnight screening) and thrillers (Roman de Gare). A repeat Best Movie Theater winner, the River Oaks is currently the focus of a heated preservation fight. Its prime location may prove too tempting to local developers before long, but for now, it's still the best theater experience in the city.

The mega-size International Festival is held annually over two weekends in April. From mariachis to Hugh Masekela, if it's music, it's there. Ten stages feature music from around the world — and some from around the neighborhood — and include Latin music, world music, pop, blues, country and jazz. The festival draws names big and small. This year's nationally known performers included Buddy Guy, The Neville Brothers, Grupo Fantasma, Shemekia Copeland, Bettye Lavette, and The Wailers. Local artists included Little Joe Washington and Earl Gilliam, Karina Nistal, and Leo Polk. Best yet, free Friday lunchtime concerts kicked off each weekend, with groups such as the Zydeco Dots, National Dance Theater of Ethiopia and D.R.U.M.

Alley Theatre

Okay, we admit it, one of the best things about Love, Janis was that the show about the life and times of Janis Joplin, the Texas queen of rock, was so, well, unmusical-like. The setup was simple: Two actors played Joplin. One sang the great singer's amazing songs while the other told her story in simple epistolary monologues. Tunes like "Me and Bobby McGee," "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" brought down the house, just like they did back in the old days when Joplin was alive. And the singer's story about fame, the fast life and the large-living lure of heroine and alcohol was American mythmaking at its very best.

Best Of Houston®

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