PARK CITY, UTAH – Sundance 2015 feels like a festival where you can see a good number of films without seeing a number of good films.
This year’s roster of 130-plus features offered “not enough outstanding and too many mediocre,” said Sundance visitor Ted Hope. The acclaimed art house film producer and San Francisco Film Society executive director launched his career here 20 years ago with 1995’s Sundance award winner “The Brothers McMullen,” a modern, profane twist on old-fashioned family relationship dramas.
Creative discoveries like that can spray stardust on artists, their supporters and the film community as a whole. Sundance in recent years has released Oscar bait like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or this year’s best picture contenders “Boyhood” and “Whiplash.” It launched Hollywood careers for the Coen brothers in 1985 with “Blood Simple,” Steven Soderberg in 1989 with “Sex Lies and Videotape,” Christopher Nolan in 2001 for “Memento,” and many more.
A January trip to central Utah is more than a quick path to being The Next Big Thing. It’s a marketplace where studios like Sony can spend millions on films that they know are good, rather than investing in unknowns that might be terrible.
But not every year’s supply is flawless. Since the fest premiered in 1984, Robert Redford’s independent vision of world cinema has served up some clunkers. After a week of intense filmgoing, a few potential classics emerged alongside several calamities.
It’s a matter of Sundance pride to offer an opening-day screening of a promising discovery. Last year that was “Whiplash.” This year, that honor went to “The Bronze,” with “The Big Bang Theory’s” Melissa Rauch cast as a raunchy Olympic gymnast trying to live in fame long after her 15 minutes of endorsement deals have ended. The narcissistic character’s pushy one-liners, regular diet of sex and drugs, and endless egotism opened the festival with a gymnastic flop instead of a breakout indie comedy.
The quality problem reached a surreal high point when Warner Bros. used a yearly secret slot to screen the long-delayed “Jupiter Ascending,” which opens next Friday. The sci-fi adventure, starring Mila Kunis as a space princess and Channing Tatum as an elf-eared intergalactic warrior, failed to fill the 300-seat Egyptian Theatre, prompting numerous walkouts and no end-credit clapping from the typically welcoming Sundance crowd. It seemed out of context to viewers who prefer highbrow features to youth-oriented thrill rides.
Animation gets bent
Still, this was a year of some wonderful oddities.
There was the first look at “Animals,” an upcoming cartoon produced by the Duplass brothers. The surreal dense comedy uproariously mixes notes from “Madagascar,” “South Park” and “The Wire” with deliciously scuzzy effects. When it finds its online distributor it could be a hit.
Argentina’s candidate for the foreign-film Oscar, “Wild Tales,” moved viewers to cascades of laughter with its remarkable blend of revenge and brilliant slapstick. Combining six intricate short stories of men and women pushed to the limit by a disastrous wedding, government bureaucracy and bad driving, it follows its characters to catastrophic —but hilarious — conclusions.
Fantasy and madness moved in other directions, of course. “The Nightmare,” a documentary exploring the bad dreams that cause sleep paralysis (including eerie reenactments of the fantasies), is the only nonfiction film ever to make me yell out loud in terror — twice. Fright maestro Eli Roth tried for a slightly less gory path in “Knock Knock,” casting Keanu Reeves as a married, sexually underserved architect who finds himself held captive by two young seductresses with sadistic plans. It aims for the shocks of “Fatal Attraction,” but proves unfaithful.
Festival veteran James Ponsoldt fared much better with the finest American entry I saw. Shot in part at the Mall of America, “The End of the Tour” begins with low-key subject matter — a Rolling Stone journalist follows best-selling author David Foster Wallace for a profile piece — but Ponsoldt creates a wonderfully deep and touching saga about friendship, ambition, envy and the pain of missing a potentially life-enhancing connection. Though its long conversations between Jason Segel, as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg, the film is surprisingly resonant, the first bromance I have ever viewed that earns tears.
In a very different take on the theme of male partnership, “Mississippi Grind” features Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as a pair of road-tripping poker players. It gives former comedy king Reynolds a fine dramatic turn and may raise his costar, an Australian national treasure in supporting performances, a shot at American stardom.
The worst are too numerous and disappointing to explore. The French “Eden,” following wanna-be cool kids through a decade of dance-dance-dance house music, runs a tiring 2 hours and 11 minutes, or three vinyl records. “Mistress America,” Noah Baumbach’s latest star project for Greta Gerwig, tries to explore relationship uncertainty in dry and droll humor, but plays like artificial drawing-room comedy.
The Toronto film festival offers more commercial movies, South by Southwest is hipper and the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival is more low-key. Sundance is still star-studded, but of dubious relevance this year.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186