It’s not just political machinations, big business and the fourth estate that inspired Crikey in 2011. The year needed a soundtrack. An escape. Entertainment to feed our minds and our souls.

We went searching for the most page-turning books, the funniest TV, the smartest theatre, the best books and music and film. Our own culturati blogged the best (and worst), and Crikey Weekender guided you gently through the after-hours. Now it’s time to name the finest achievements of the year.

After naming the best in politics, policy, media and business, we present the 2011 Cultural Crikeys. The envelope please …

Theatre production of the year (Lloyd Bradford Syke and Jason Whittaker, Curtain Call)

Sydney (LBS): This, of course, is a fraught, precarious, largely meaningless, highly arbitrary business for, whichever production I select is bound to overlook a select cache of others. Noses may well be out-of-joint. Readers will write. Wowsers will whinge. Winos will whine. There will be the customary cries, in all likelihood, of critics colluding and brown-nosing the glitterati. Nonetheless, the scantily-clad assistant in my imagination has handed me the envelope. And the winner is (drum roll, please) … Gross Und Klein.

Why? Well, not because it’s the best-written, most cohesive, or accessible, work, that’s for sure. I still choke a little on contemporary German theatre, by aggressively fashionable writers. But two things stand out: cinematic set and lighting design, by Johannes Schutz and Nick Schlieper; and, above all, Cate. I’ve long known that Blanchett is a luminous film actor. But this production rounds out her reputation, such that she is almost the benchmark by which all other actors ought be measured. We’re talking Robyn Nevin, Judy Davis, or Susie Porter blue-ribbon standards. Her turn as Lotte is difficult and challenging and the fact that, as an accomplished, already revered celebrity performer on the international stage, she didn’t have to put herself out there, but did, is salutary and admirable.

Melbourne (JW): It was a poor year for musicals in the city that prides itself (and invests heavily) in staging them — the kitsch-loaded jukebox musical Rock Of Ages was at least good fun. Simon Phillips’ final season at the helm of the Melbourne Theatre Company inspired few critics — Robert Reid’s wise-arse The Joy Of Text was the best new play; Geoffrey Rush in drag for The Importance Of Being Earnest was irresistible. Marion Potts’ first year at the Malthouse Theatre was stronger in its second act — Porn.Cake was brilliantly written; A Golem Story gorgeously designed.

But we need to go back in time to find the best Melbourne theatre of 2011. To Henrik Ibsen, who inspired two provocatively contemporary and exceptionally vivid interpretations: Daniel Schlusser’s The Dollhouse (Melbourne Fringe Festival) and German troupe Schaubühne Berlin’s Hedda Gabler (Melbourne Festival). As Hedda lay in a pool of blood in the final scene, to the strains of The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, Ibsen had never seemed more alive. And finally to the great Bard and Much Ado About Nothing — Bell Shakespeare’s touring production was nothing short of giddy theatrical joy. Blazey Best and Toby Schmitz circled each other in the most goofy and gooey performances of the year. It was the most fun I had in the theatre all year.

Book of the year (Bethanie Blanchard, Lit-icism)

This year has seen some blockbuster literary releases, both overseas — Murakami, Foster Wallace, Didion — and locally, with works by high-profile Australian writers like Steven Amsterdam, Anna Funder, Marieke Hardy et al. For me, however, the book of the year is not of the blockbuster variety, but is actually a small series of books: Affirm Press’s Long Story Shorts — six individual collections of short stories by single authors.

Though the series began in 2010, the collection was completed in September this year with the release of Irma Gold’s Two Steps Forward. I commend Affirm Press for its commitment to giving space to new and emerging Australian voices, and for demonstrating the scope and worth of short fiction — that often neglected writing form. I so enjoyed spending time with these beautiful, evocative tales by Leah Swann, Emmett Stinson, Gretchen Shirm, Irma Gold, Barry Divola, and Bob Franklin.

When you’re finished with the blockbusters, it’s nice to try a story with an unfamiliar name upon the cover too.

Film of the year (Luke Buckmaster, Cinetology)

The Lincoln Lawyer — a perfect cross between PI-style whodunit and courtroom thriller, adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly — proves three things: 1) neo-noir doesn’t have to be excessively violent, like Drive; 2) the deflated genre of legal thrillers can still pack a hell of a punch; and 3) Matthew McConaughey can act with the best of them when he sets his mind to it. McConaughey, whose baggy eyes appear guilt ridden by the weight of so many bad movies, is perfectly cast as Mick Haller, a smug got-ya-number Southern American attorney whose greatest fear is representing an innocent man. His cool and collected universe is thrown helter skelter when a new client (Ryan Phillipe) enters his professional and personal life.

One almighty half-time twist involving sends the story hurtling into a zero-oxygen cat and mouse power play. With whispers of Roman Polanksi’s Chinatown (1974) and Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear (1996), The Lincoln Lawyer is a case study in measured style from the opening credits (set to Bobby Blue Bland’s Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City to the script’s commentaries on the court as a political playground. The at-first unflappable Haller — up there with the best characters the courtroom genre has to offer — discovers a crisis of conscience the hard way, determined to correct mistakes of the past by “making it right”. McConaughey, perhaps, was driven by the same impetus, and the result is a twisty, intricately crafted chef d’oeuvre.

*Read Luke Buckmaster’s top 10 films at Cinetology

TV show of the year (Dan Barrett, White Noise)

Despite the rabid fan base, the rave critical reviews, and the charm it exudes on a weekly basis, Parks and Recreation continues to fight an uphill battle to even be watched let alone accepted. Buried late at night on Channel 7 (though in credit to them, at least the show consistently goes to air each week), Parks and Recreation is more than just a rip-off of The Office.

It centres around the staff of the Parks Department of the local council that manages the small town of Pawnee. Most of the office is filled with disengaged govt employees, but led by the excessively engaged deputy director Leslie Knope who cites Janet Reno as one of her inspirations. Officially in charge of the office is the least engaged staff member, Director Ron Swanson, a libertarian with three ex-wives — each named Tammy. This year saw the introduction of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to an already solid cast, transforming the show from one of the best TV shows on the air into TV’s finest program.

It’s an unusual comedy in that its strength is not in being funny. There’s great laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s a love for the characters that keeps drawing viewers back. The show exhibits great heart without ever being considered schmaltzy. TV hasn’t seen an ensemble cast click together and with an audience this well since the days of Cheers — in many ways a template for the character relationships in this show. This is an easy show to dismiss (especially those that saw the god-awful first season), but week in, week out it delivers the most charming and engaging series to have aired in 2011.

Album of the year (Neil Walker, earworm)

Anointing the best album of the year is fraught with danger. Deciding that this album is better than those albums is tough because differing moods can change opinion at different times. But … it’s Nickelback’s Here And Now, isn’t it? Just joking.

It’s PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. The English singer-songwriter’s eighth album is her strongest set yet. Previous efforts have featured great songs but Let England Shake — in the modern age of single-track downloads — holds together brilliantly as a cohesive whole and deserves to be heard as such. Released in February, this is a state-of-the-nation critique that draws on that country’s wartime history — mostly during the First World War — to illuminate its gloomy wartime present. It’s also a bloody good set of songs. And these songs are literally bloody. From the opening title track to the closing The Colour Of The Earth, Harvey’s lyrics vividly depict death on foreign fields and the futility of battle for many of its participants.

Let England Shake won the 2011 Mercury Prize for best British album of the year. The judges got it right. Let England Shake, like the outstanding fourth series of TV show Blackadder, sees pop culture reminding us of the horrors of war. Lest we forget.