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An unusually subdued Sundance carries on

CHRIS PIZZELLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Chris Rock and Spike Lee at the Sundance Film Festival.

PARK CITY, Utah - Tracy Morgan was briefly in the Park City Medical Center after collapsing Sunday outside an event here. A weekend blizzard had moviegoers staggering and limousines spinning through the worst weather in festival memory. And Spike Lee is mad as hell.

It’s safe to say that the drama at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival has been largely off the screen.

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The most dramatic, and by far the saddest, news was the death yesterday of Bingham Ray after suffering a stroke at Sundance last week. Ray, the former head of October Films and United Artists, was a much-loved legend who many credit with helping to shepherd the boom in off-Hollywood filmmaking during the 1990s, and word of his passing spread across the festival Twitter-sphere like an electronic pall. Feisty, creative, intrepid, he was a moving force in indie cinema and a genuine character, and he was stricken in the prime of his career. There will surely be memorials announced before the festival ends Sunday, and there will be many, many glasses raised on Main Street in the coming days.

As for Morgan, a cynic might wonder if the “30 Rock’’ comedian had simply taken a look at the festival lineup. At midpoint, this appears to be the softest, least-focused Sundance in many a moon, with high-profile titles failing to find audiences and precious few discoveries among the unknowns. There have been distribution deals, but nothing on the order of 2011’s record number of buys. No Sundance “It Girl’’ has emerged on the order of last year’s Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling. (The closest thing may have been established 34-year-old character actress Melanie Lynskey, who gets a rare lead in the smart but overwritten “Hello I Must Be Going.’’)

More to the point, enthusiasm for the movies here has been hard to come by, and disenchantment has been a more common response to the higher-profile films scheduled in the festival’s Premiere section. When one of the better-received star vehicles at Sundance, the Richard Gere financial thriller, “Arbitrage,’’ is praised as a perfectly serviceable Sidney Lumet knockoff, you know a festival is struggling to find its tone. Even such storied filmmaking iconoclasts as Lee and Stephen Frears have come up short.

Frears was in town searching for buyers for “Lay the Favorite,’’ an antic, cartoonish farce that only proves how much the British director (“The Grifters,’’ “The Queen’’) doesn’t understand about Las Vegas and American pop culture. With satisfying character performances from Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and an over-the-top turn by Rebecca Hall as a stripper-turned-bookie, “Favorite’’ seems destined for a Redbox near you.

Lee’s self-financed “Red Hook Summer’’ was kept under tight wraps until its Sunday night premiere, whereupon it was greeted by a packed audience at the Eccles Theater with diminishing affection and growing incomprehension. Set in the housing projects and a local church in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the title, “Summer’’ begins as a fond evocation of a community under stress from within (the local drug dealer played by Nate Parker) and without (an incoming tide of gentrifying whites).

The script, co-written by Lee and James McBride, takes a hard right into the churchy, with the preacher played by Clarke Peters, of “The Wire,’’ unleashing charismatic but ultimately numbing sermons that play out in their entirety. You’re never sure where it’s all going and neither is the movie; late in the two-hours-plus running time comes a plot twist that is meant to be incendiary but that just proves intensely frustrating.

Part street-scene, part memory play, part sociological rant, “Red Hook Summer’’ drove moviegoers toward the exits, but not before Lee’s post-screening Q&A devolved into a tirade - spurred by audience-member Chris Rock, of all people. Asking the director what he would have done if he had been able to make the movie with Hollywood money (“Would you have blown up lots of [expletive]?’’), Rock gave Lee license to vent his righteous anger toward film executives who “know nothing about black people. I don’t need a [expletive] studio telling me about Red Hook.’’

Again, more off-screen drama. By contrast, documentaries like “The Queen of Versailles,’’ “Searching for Sugar Man,’’ and Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In,’’ the latter a lucid dissection of America’s failed war on drugs, made their cases more forcefully. “Versailles’’ opened Sundance 2012 with a catty inside look at the biggest private home in America and what happens to the couple building in it when the recession hits; it’s a disingenuous experience that’s more reality TV than sociological eye-opener and the movie ends before the story does. But it sold, to Magnolia Pictures. Sony Pictures Classics picked up “Sugar Man,’’ a well-received Swedish doc about a vanished ’60s rocker named Rodriguez. CBS Films reportedly paid $2 million for festival closer “The Words,’’ a literary drama starring Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons.

There were good movies and audience rousers to be found, obviously; the midnight showing of “Shut Up and Play the Hits’’ at the Egyptian Sunday was a packed party for the concert film and its adorable subject, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, who was present. But if you were casting about for a film that delivered what one always hopes for at Sundance - fresh eyes, narrative command, a sense you’re being taken someplace you never knew existed - there was only one buzz movie this year. By the fourth day of the festival, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,’’ from first-time director Benh Zeitlin and his New Orleans filmmaking collective Court 13, was on everybody’s lips, and for good reason: It’s astonishing.

Set in a ramshackle coastal hamlet called Bathtub, the magical-realist “Beasts’’ plays a little like “Whale Rider’’ as a post-Katrina creation myth. Even that thumbnail description does a disservice to Zeitlin’s startlingly assured vision, which is anchored by the lead performance of 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. The movie works both in the quotidian reality of a hurricane’s aftermath, with unwelcome rescue teams on the horizon, and as a primordial folk fable, the two levels intertwining mysteriously and, by the end, majestically.

Some - myself included - think it’s the best movie to play Sundance in years, and that sense of discovery has been part of the thrill. Will “Beasts of the Southern Wild’’ get picked up for distribution? Fox Searchlight and other companies were rumored to be circling and a deal announcement is expected any day. Will it get overhyped and oversold? I’m contributing to the process right now. But it’s not often you see a movie that has you in its spell within the first few scenes, that keeps expanding on its vision, and that releases you back into the world as if from a dream. “Beasts’’ is the reminder this year needs: that Sundance and the idea behind it - an idea to which Bingham Ray devoted his life’s work - still matters.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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