When it comes to size, no one beats FotoFest. During the 2010 event, one thousand photographers showed their work in dozens of official and unofficial venues throughout the city, and 250,000 viewers from 32 countries visited the exhibits. And when it comes to quality, FotoFest again stands alone. Each of the biannual shows features a theme — it was China in 2008, and violence in 2006, for example. Curators literally scour the world looking not only for well-established talents who can interpret the theme in a new way but also for practically unknown photographers who are also pushing the boundaries of the medium.

In the upper Heights sits Big Star, one of the city's most lively alcoholic redoubts. You can disappear at Big Star in a dark corner, or you can hold court with your drinking team on the dark back patio. The place has become a popular after-work hang for Houston chefs. This spring, if you stopped by on the right night, you could scarf oysters or tacos with your Lone Star. Fridays and Saturdays, curious interlopers from the clean and pressed Cedar Creek around the corner come by to mingle with Houston's indie-rock self-appointed elite.

In our minds, Warehouse Live is the best venue for mid-level acts visiting Houston. Now that the Meridian or whatever it is called has dried up, live music is nearly dead in East Downtown, save the random warehouse party. Luckily we still have this venue up and running, with its two stages and separate lounge space. It's not a bad place to begin or end your night, either, with a wine bar across the street and Lucky's Pub next door for pre- or aftershow grub going until right before last call. The prices at Warehouse Live aren't ridiculous, and most spots in the ballroom and studio rooms offer excellent vantage points, especially the raised section in the main hall.

The midnight film series at the Landmark River Oaks edged out the competition for Best Film Series earlier this year with a screening of the horror film The Human Centipede, First Sequence, a delightfully horrific and gruesome tale by writer/director Tom Six. (We won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say, potential viewers always say, "Oh, that is sick!" followed by a quick, "When's the next showing?") Regular midnight screenings run the gamut, with action flicks, classics, thrillers and the ever-popular The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

If you are a regular at Anvil in Montrose, you no doubt know Mindy Kucan's bright, smiling face well. The brassy brunette has been slinging drinks at the Westheimer haunt for close to a year now, and she has a devoted following. An eight-year vet of the bartending scene, Kucan got into the more crafty side of things four years ago for a competition. She won the grand prize and fell in love with a more intricate art of drink-making. Now you can give her any set of ingredients and make magic happen in a glass. Next time you come into Anvil, ask her to make you a Hot Summer Night. As for her own favorite drink, that depends on her mood and company, but you can't go wrong with Fernet.

Only three shows into its new Houston residency, Art Palace had shattered expectations. From its first exhibit, Jonathan Marshall's sophisticated sci-fi/psychedelic "Doubled Vision," it felt as if the originally Austin-based gallery had landed intact from a SoHo storefront rather than from country-crafty Central Texas. By the time Emilie Halpern and Eric Zimmerman's mind-bending "Cosmos" arrived in May, Art Palace had challenged its two longstanding and respected commercial neighbors, Inman and CTRL, in depth of concept and relevance. At a time when the majority of Houston galleries present straightforward solo exhibitions and haphazard group shows, Art Palace is thinking deep, pushing boundaries and keeping it fun. Credit director Arturo Palacios for maintaining a light touch and a comfortable, approachable atmosphere. We look forward to many future visits.

For his solo exhibition "Holy Ghosts!" at Moody Gallery, Bise, an atheist, delivered an apocalyptic series of drawings based on his own experiences growing up in a radically religious family. It might have been easy to interpret some sort of political agenda or bitterly judgmental attack lurking in Bise's subject matter, but rather than exorcising childhood demons, Bise's confessional tone revealed a benevolence and tolerant acceptance of the belief system he would eventually discard. In all of Bise's drawings, the detail is unbelievable — the textures and patterns on clothing, the hairstyles, the jewelry. The most impressive work, Revival, depicted an ecstatic tent-revival scene of 100women engulfed in an evangelical frenzy. And Bise gave us personal sketches of childhood rites, both disturbing and compassionate. At one moment, we felt sympathy for Bise's cartoon-nightmare doomsday visions and the corporal punishment he received in religion's name. At others, we empathized with the disappointment parents feel when their children engage in repulsive acts. Bise's brave series of drawings opened a childhood rabbit hole and dared us to fall in with him.

The news that Ernie's on Banks had closed down barely even had time to register before Grand Prize arose to take its place, and Big Star Bar's Brad Moore's latest watering hole has definitely helped alleviate some of the pain of losing the beloved Montrose/Museum District sports bar. Sleeker than Big Star and homier than Poison Girl, Grand Prize has booths and couches downstairs for your lounging pleasure and an upstairs room that looks like your uncle's den if he had been AC/DC's manager back in the '80s, plus a porch-like downstairs patio and rooftop deck for all you smokers. With a jukebox loaded with fist-flailing hard rock (Guns N' Roses, Motörhead), cutting-edge 21st-century dance-pop (Goldfrapp, MGMT) and a whole lotta Texas (ZZ Top, Lightnin' Hopkins, George Jones), Grand Prize is a winner. One cautionary note: Downing one or two of the bar's frozen absinthe-flavored Aviators might tempt you to fly off that upstairs deck, but please don't.

In late 2009, Lawndale Art Center presented a group show that transformed the place into a dimension-shifting sci-fi world. It was a thrill to explore the building's three floors feeling like an invisible spy or an investigator of strange phenomena. Monica Vidal and Jasmyne Graybill fused the organic and synthetic to Cronenbergian heights of freakiness. Shawn Smith forcefully evolved (or devolved) nature into a two-room horror show in which time-traveling, pixilated vultures feasted on obsolete technology. Linking it all together was Kia Neill's second-floor "Grotto," a dark, tight cave with hanging stalactites and blinking crystals overgrown with Spanish moss — one of the most otherworldly things we've experienced in Houston in a while. It was genuinely disorienting, weird and hilarious, and it transported us out of Lawndale in a really cool way. But perhaps the best part of the journey was stepping out of Neill's "Grotto" onto the elevator, pushing the button to the first floor, turning around and watching the curtain close on that otherworldly realm.

With more than 100 vintage, always-lit Tiffany-style lamps, Midtown's Nouveau Antique Art Bar is both an aesthete's refuge and a stoner's paradise. The bar's surreal glow makes it a perfect spot for networking at one of the many corporate-underwritten happy hours — which, be aware, can get pretty crowded — that have come to roost there, or just soaking up the $1 Lone Star cans one by one. (With a happy hour that stretches until 9 p.m., that can be a lot of Lone Star.) The atmosphere and clientele vary from night to night — expect a steady diet of Mazzy Star and Cat Power at the Tuesday ladies' night; Wednesday's all-Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald evenings are ideal for unwinding with a tasty Tito's martini; and both the volume and mingling-singles factor get way turned up on weekends — but whenever you go, expect your fellow patrons to be gainfully employed and well versed in the arts. Nouveau offers a free drink for any ticket stub from a local symphony, theater, ballet or opera production.

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