25 Biggest Sundance One-Hit Wonders, #16-20

united states of leland
Director: Matthew Ryan Hoge
World premiere: Sundance 2003

Matthew Ryan Hoge seemed to have that specific brand of Sundance alchemy working overtime in his second feature, “The United States of Leland.” Kevin Spacey was a producer and star, indie zygote Ryan Gosling was the lead, and the ensemble cast of this film about a disturbed young man in a juvenile detention center — including Michelle Williams, Chris Klein, Kerry Washington, Lena Olin, Jena Malone and Don Cheadle — is exactly the kind of thing that the festival seems to reward (see “Manic,” also on this list; Cheadle even plays a notably similar role here). Park City’s pleasure centers, duly stimulated, gifted “Leland” with some serious output: critics were comparing it to underground godhead “Donnie Darko,” and the less cool but bougie-impressive “American Beauty.” Paramount Classics heard the jungle call and went in for the kill while the festival was still ongoing, buying “Leland” for $2.1 million. They then left it on the shelf for over a year, and by the time the film was released in March of 2004, its contrivance seemed as blatant as its Sundance pedigree: critics were harsh, audiences were apathetic and the film took in just under $350,000. A modest but irrefutable bath for Paramount Classics, it was enough to drown Hoge’s career at least temporarily (he hasn’t directed since), though almost his entire cast has gone on to varying levels of post-indie accomplishment. –Michelle Orange

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.
Director: Leslie Harris
U.S. premiere: Sundance 1993

“‘Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.’ is not just another movie,” exclaimed Peter Travers in his 1993 Rolling Stone Sundance dispatch. And yet the $130,000 urban drama about a high school student (Ariyan A. Johnson) looking to escape Brooklyn for medical school would be just another movie that’s part of a troubling Sundance trend – female filmmakers who made a splash at Sundance, only to never be seen or heard from again. (See: “The Tao of Steve”‘s Jenniphr Goodwin, “Polish Wedding”‘s Theresa Connelly, both on this list.) Such was the case of Leslie Harris, who went from directing hair salon ads to picking up a special jury prize for her debut feature, which was completed with donations from Michael Moore and Terry McMillan. Miramax picked up the final product and pushed it to a gross of just under $500,000, but Harris couldn’t capitalize on the Sundance buzz. In 2000, Harris reappeared at IndieWire to interview Gina Prince-Bythewood on the eve of the premiere of Prince-Bythewood’s first film, “Love and Basketball.” At the time, Harris said she was working on her next feature, a Martin Scorsese-produced thriller entitled “Royalties, Rhythm and Blues” about a woman trying to make it in the hip-hop industry, but no movie was ever made. –SS

A Slipping-Down Life
Director: Toni Kalem
World premiere: Sundance 1999

When “A Slipping-Down Life” premiered at Sundance in 1999, Lili Taylor was just peaking as an indie sensation — obscure enough to still be hip, well-known enough to be celebrated as “the best actress you don’t yet know.” But her typically off-kilter performance in this adaptation of Anne Tyler’s 1970 novel about the relationship between a moody rock star (Guy Pearce) and an obsessed fan (Taylor) — a nutjob with a bag of hang-ups who, in a display of deep emotion, carves her musician idol’s name in her forehead — did nothing for the film’s commercial fortunes, which were sabotaged by producer-spurred recuts and the creative in-fighting that ensued. As a result, despite having two well-regarded leads (this was Pearce’s follow-up to “L.A. Confidential”), Toni Kalem’s debut didn’t see the theatrical light of day until five years later, when Taylor’s indie star had slightly waned and its overly earnest romantic tendencies seemed the byproduct of, well, a half-decade earlier, resulting in an underwhelming $95,000 total box office take. –NS

Director: Nicole Kassell
World premiere: Sundance 2004

“Controversy can help a film,” said Newmarket president Bob Berney before a pre-release marketing meeting, as quoted by the New York Times. “But I do think this is one subject that has to be explained. Controversy only works when the controversy is not uncomfortable with people. Pedophilia is not an easily discussed subject.” Bought for a reported $1.2 million at Sundance, first-and-only-time director Nicole Kassell’s in-competition adaptation of Steven Fechter’s play stars Kevin Bacon in a widely acclaimed turn as a convicted child molester who tries to get his life back together after 12 years of imprisonment. And what, exactly, was Berney’s tactic for getting asses in seats, five degrees closer to Bacon’s tormented kid-toucher? Release the thing on Christmas Eve (the gift that keeps on giving!), exactly a year after he somehow successfully launched the limited run of “Monster,” another button-pusher with a potentially award-winning central performance. The great irony is that “The Woodsman” came out a little more than a week after California put its sex offender registry online, and while Berney is right about how controversy can help, the film earned only a million-and-a-half domestically, proving The Charlize Strategy was a fluke. –AH

Director: Jordan Melamed
World premiere: Sundance 2001

In the fall of 2000, Filmmaker magazine wrote that first-time director Jordan Melamed’s film “Manic” lay somewhere between “Kids” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and the hype only got hype-ier from there. Biting! Edgy! Stunningly Potent! “Manic,” which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in one of his first post-”Third Rock From the Sun” roles), Zooey Deschanel and Don Cheadle, takes place in a mental institution for young people, and much of the buzz it generated after its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival was based on its use of digital photography and Dogme-esque style. Produced by Next Wave’s “Agenda 2000″ division, the film crashed out of Sundance on a huge wave of acclaim, having arrived with little warning, but went on to tour the international festival circuit for the next two years. Finally picked up for distribution (by IFC Films), “Manic” opened in May of 2003 and despite respectful critical attention grossed a gritty, edgy $70,000 at the box office. This did not bode well for Melamed’s directing career: so far “Manic” is his first and last film. –MO

Check out all of the 2009 Sundance coverage at IFC.com and SundanceChannel.com.

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