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The heavy hitters emerged at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, as audiences got their first look at films that would make any cinema junkie drool. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, Ben Affleck’s Argo and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha all played north of the border to packed houses … and we were there for as much of it as we could absorb.

As you might have anticipated, The Master has been earning the loudest raves, though most everyone brave enough to tweet about PTA’s latest opus at least admit that it can not be boiled down to 140 characters (and certainly needs to be processed, and possible re-screened multiple times).

I passed on a Master screening in favor of Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to Blue Valentine, a sprawling crime thriller titled The Place Beyond the Pines. I regret that decision with every fiber of my being. Pines is a mess, an unfocused and unwieldy drama about the cyclical nature of crime and families. There are three half-formed movies at play in Pines, though Cianfrance connects them with the thinnest of threads, and only one storyline (the one involving Ryan Gosling as a bank-robbing motorcyclist) barely holds your interest. Pines has the same gritty realism Cianfrance brought to Valentine. But he reaches too far to make a point about how the vicious cycle of violence tends to repeat itself with tragic results, and his third act is riddled with ludicrous coincidences that blast the movie out of the water. Such a shame.

One film that didn’t disappoint was Ben Affleck’s Argo, a riveting thriller based on true-life events about a CIA specialist commissioned to extract six Americans from a Canadian embassy during the hostile Iran hostage crisis in 1979. It’s another bold step forward for Affleck as a filmmaker, and he once again proves to have a spectacular eye for casting, populating Argo with outstanding character actors like Alan Arkin, John Goodman and the great Bryan Cranston.

And yet, the best thing I’ve seen at the fest so far (and mind you, it’s early) is Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, an intoxicating adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian classic that cuts right to the heart of the emotional toils suffered by aristocrats in love. It sounds stuffy. It’s actually beautiful, with Wright pulling off a daring tight-rope walk that visually incorporates elements of theater while also tapping into the bold current of love in Tolstoy’s dark piece. It’s a triumph.

Hopefully my next film will be equally stimulating. I’m running to Cloud Atlas, after hearing amazing things.

More from TIFF to come …