For me a great or very good ending is almost half the game. The rest is covered by (a) the famous Howard Hawks dictum about a good film needing “three great scenes and no bad ones,” and (b) the HE rule that a lead character can’t irritate or alienate or piss you off. But a great ending can persuade you to forgive a film for an awful lot of things.

It’s understood that most Sundance films either don’t get or are unable to subscribe to the great ending rule. And I realize, of course, that people would completely reject any Sundance film that tries to imitate the finale of Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment. We all understand that it worked back then, couldn’t work now. And yet this 1960 dramedy ends superbly according to its own terms and standards.

The fact is that none of the Sundance 2011 films I saw between 1.20 and 1.27 had the first clue about how to end their films even half as effectively. Most of them seemed to just stop or wind down or run out of gas.

I didn’t see everything I needed to see in Park City, as noted, but I saw six Sundance 2011 acquisitions that had weak or nonexistent endings, or no great scenes, or a major character who was profoundly irritating.

Gavin Wiesen‘s Homework (Fox Searchlight). Problem: The lead, Freddie Highmore , delivers each and every line and emotion exactly the same way with the same faintly self-amused expression, the same faint intellectual-hipster smile, the same space cadet/distracted-artist vibe, the same glassy-eyed expression. I wanted to see Highmore get hit by an MTA bus.

Sean Durkin‘s Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight). Problem: The mildly creepy finale hints at what might be happening — maybe, sorta kinda, probably — but it leaves you up in the air and scratching your head. I walked out saying to myself, “Wait…what happened…?”

Lee Tamahori‘s The Devil’s Double (Roadside). Problem: [Spoiler Warning] Any story about the demonic Uday Hussein is going to create a longing to see him “get his” at the end. And he doesn’t. He just gets shot in the groin area but survives to murder and torture another day until finally getting killed by U.S. troops in 2003. And his double is said to be off in Ireland somewhere. The ending leaves you with nothing.

J.C. Chandor‘s Margin Call (Lionsgate). Problem: It tells a very realistic but highly cynical story about some very smart and selfish Wall Street pricks (including Kevin Spacey‘s half sympathetic character). It ends in a pit of despair, shadows and defeatism.

Jacob Aaron EstesThe Details (Weinstein Co.). The ending — or rather a confession scene between Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks — is probably the best thing about this film. But it leaves you convinced of the likelihood that God or fate or whatever is going to drop another piano on Maguire’s head any second.

Drake Doremus‘s Like Crazy (Paramount). Problem [Spoiler Warning]: A film about a very tender and trusting romantic relationship loses more and more energy during the third act. By the time it’s over you’re wishing you’d left at the halfway point. On top of which the middle-aged actors portraying Felicity Jones‘ parents don’t even faintly resemble her. They don’t even look like cousins.