Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, 2012, 70 mm, color, 137 minutes. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

ONE REASON the Toronto International Film Festival has been able to attain such prominence is that it’s been careful not to step on the toes of its biggest rivals. Unlike Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance, TIFF has no competition beyond a modest slate of critics awards, honors for the best Canadian entries, and the audience prize that’s come to be regarded as an early predictor of awards-season success—The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire were recent winners. That’s why filmmakers hungry for hardware typically treat Toronto as a second stop (or third, if they start the victory lap at Telluride).

Nevertheless, given the Venice jury’s much-publicized foul-up over Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—which failed to win the Golden Lion due to a technicality that prevents films from getting more than two awards—it’d be a savvy move by TIFF’s top brass to hastily concoct a shiny statuette and thereby stake a claim on the only new movie to have inspired mass admiration at the festival’s midway point.

Arriving amid much speculation over what Anderson’s period piece would or wouldn’t portray about the origins of Scientology, The Master has proved to be a meatier, more ambiguous, and more accomplished work than even the director’s admirers might’ve expected. Making an astonishing return from his still-perplexing hiatus, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a troubled war vet who comes under the wing of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Constance Dodd, a loquacious and temperamental author and speaker who bears some resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of Dianetics. Yet Anderson is ultimately less interested in America’s perennial love affair with self-actualization philosophies than in the stormy dynamic between the two characters and the different ideas about power, control, and identity that they represent.

With its extraordinary swagger and sophistication, The Master leaves most of the other new features at the festival looking puny. The only film with anything like the same impact was Leviathan, a punishingly physical documentary shot aboard a New England fishing vessel by Lucien Caisting-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab. Then again, TIFF’s other keenly anticipated new work by a much-venerated American auteur was bound to seem meager no matter what. Largely unloved in Venice, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder struggled to find much support in Toronto, too. Fragmentary to the point of being formless, this muddled romantic melodrama stars Ben Affleck as Neil, a taciturn American who labors through a tumultuous relationship with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful Parisienne who returns with him to Oklahoma. Whereas the autobiographical nature of The Tree of Life lent a degree of relative coherence and directness to Malick’s languid, expressionistic style, To the Wonder sees the director cycling through his favorite motifs to ever-diminishing effect. The innumerable shots of Kurylenko twirling through verdant fields and sun-dappled rooms yield precious little wonder but plenty of ammunition for Malick’s detractors. (Reports that the suddenly prolific director will have two more movies next year beg the question of whether he’s so wise to shorten his movies’ incubation periods.)

Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers, 2012, 35 mm, color, 92 minutes.

The possibility that Harmony Korine may have created a better Malick movie than Malick is among TIFF’s weirder developments. Of course, the bacchanalian excesses of Spring Breakers—Korine’s slick and sleazy youthsploitation flick about coeds gone wild in Florida, who get some help from a drug dealer played with evident relish by James Franco—make the film disreputable in the extreme. Yet with its dreamlike, often nonlinear flow and wealth of images both gorgeous and grotesque, Korine’s latest provocation may very well be a Tree of Life for dirtbags.

Wayward youths made a memorable showing in another festival highlight. A remarkably clear-eyed look at his teenage self’s imperfect efforts to reconcile his nascent artistic ambitions with the anarchic fervor of those too young to have participated in the 1968 revolts but still try to keep the fire burning, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air is subtle, substantial, and loaded with the director’s typically astute musical choices. Songs by the Incredible String Band, Amazing Blondel, and Soft Machine all figure prominently.

Even so, the most imaginative film at the festival was about not formative years but final ones. An unabashedly odd counterpart to Michael Haneke’s far more somber Amour, Night Across the Street was the last film to have been completed by director Raúl Ruiz before his death last year at the age of seventy. (Lines of Wellington, a Napoleonic epic that he’d been preparing to shoot and was completed by his widow and longtime collaborator Valéria Sarmiento, also screens at TIFF and the New York Film Festival.) Based on a novel by Chilean writer Hernán del Solar, this tale of an elderly man overwhelmed by memories and fantasies is an endlessly playful and frequently moving meditation on mortality. Like the best in TIFF’s thirty-seventh edition, Ruiz’s swan song proves that mastery comes in many forms.

Jason Anderson

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through September 16.