09/12/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

The Lost Children of the Toronto Film Festival

At the Toronto Film Festival 2013 it's all about the biggies: studio blockbusters sit lined up like rockets on launching pads, positioned for awards season. Most prominent, perhaps, is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. A thriller like you've never seen, it's about astro-scientists abandoned in space, offering mind-blowing visuals that make it a cinematic game changer, no question; any "story" attached is almost an afterthought.

Sadly, auteurist or "smaller" films boasting a subtler artistry have been somewhat drowned out by the buzz from Gravity and such scenery chewers as John Wells's August: Osage County (which I have yet to see). Yet a pair of less-buzzed standouts have muscled to the forefront -- "Philomena" by Stephen Frears and Prisoners by new cinematic darling Denis Villeneuve -- marrying mainstream elements and crackerjack filmmaking to intelligence and vision. And: what better way to deliver a gut punch than tell a story of lost children?

In Philomena Martin (Steve Coogan), a world-weary political reporter, and Philomena (Judi Dench) a pious Catholic, mount a quest to locate her lost child, a little boy literally sold to an American couple by the Sisters of an Irish abbey for pregnant unwed girls where she was incarcerated. Frears draws on the familiar trope of the odd couple joining forces. The film also calls up Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, which targeted a similar church-run Irish home for young sinners ruled by nuns from hell.

But pitch perfect turns from Dench and Cooper, along with a flawless screenplay that movingly probes the odd couple's dynamic, mines fresh drama in this searing story of innocents wronged. The film is suffused with a haunting sense of loss as Martin and Phil uncover the traces of a son who became a hotshot lawyer in America and went on to a tragic destiny (beautifully captured by photos and flashbacks).

And as if the church didn't have enough troubles, Frears, an issues-oriented director, lands a knock out punch on the directors of the Irish abbey -- and by extension the Catholic church -- and the institutionalized fanaticism that stained two lives. Film festivals overflow with monsters and baddies, but perhaps the arch villain of this year's TIFF wears a black habit and a wimple. Philomena's richly satisfying resolution will leave you feeling better about the world.

Lost children figure too, in The Devil's Knot by Atom Egoyan. Murky and unfocused, it revisits the murder of two boys in Arkansas and subsequent conviction of three "perps" targeted by a town portrayed as a latter-day Salem blinded by superstition. This miscarriage of justice has been amply covered by the media and here seems tired goods. Colin Firth is a genius actor, but playing a gum shoe from Arkansas? I don't think so. The wonderful Alessandro Nivola is miscast and under-used as a key suspect, while Reese Witherspoon manages mainly to be annoying.

Way more successful is the similarly themed crime stunner Prisoners from Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, working for the first time in English. Slick and lethal as a studio cop procedural, Prisoners adds a spooky French Canadian dimension by probing the intersection of religiosity and mayhem. A powerhouse cast lead by Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in top form, backed by Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and a magnificently eerie Melissa Leo makes this entertainment never less than riveting.

Two happy middle class families in some overcast, unnamed suburb convene for Thanksgiving. Each has a young daughter who goes missing. Suspicion falls on the driver of a camper parked outside one family's house used by a semi-retarded loner (Dano). When the cops release him for lack of evidence, Jackman, a survivalist with a cellar prepped for Armageddon, goes mano a mano with chief detective Gyllenhaal, turns vigilante, and abducts Dano. Meanwhile clues multiply involving an uper-creepy fellow with a face from nightmares, plus a child abduction ring with a fetish for mazes. The plot points may feel preposterous yet it's the feeling of dread, abetted by Gyllenhaal's masterful turn, that propels the film and will leave you almost shaking. Keep your eye on a daughter's red whistle.

A word to filmmakers on violence. People, could you dial it back? And by people, I mean guys. Women filmmakers are not known for onscreen violence, and when they are, like Kathryn Bigelow,, unfortunately they attract praise. But do we really need extended takes of flayings and disembowlments, closeups of pulpy eyes and smashed skulls? It may sound old school, but hey, a little suggestion goes a long way.