09/12/2012 07:28 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Live From Toronto Film Festival: Tuesday, Sept. 11

"The weak are meat and the strong shall eat."

So declares Tom Hanks in one of several roles he plays in Cloud Atlas, the monumental new film from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana. He's one of a handful of actors who play a variety of roles in the half-dozen plotlines that span time from the mid-19th century to the far future in this adaptation of David Mitchell's mind-bending novel.

You can have The Master -- give me something as multi-layered and chewy as Cloud Atlas any day. As the stories break in on each other, the trio of directors create a variety of resonances that echo forward and backward in time, finding themes of questioning authority, seeking personal freedom and the constant struggle to outlive the kind of greedy human errors we seem to make over and over throughout history.

It is bound to be as controversial as The Master -- but is more accessible and more involving. Hanks, along with Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant and a handful of other actors, bring each of these stories to vigorous life. The directors put the various pieces of the puzzle into play, then bring it all home in the final hour of the film's 165-minute running time.

Is it challenging? Absolutely. And yet it pays off emotionally and intellectually in ways that few movies with this much ambition ever do. It's easy to mock the feelings it evokes, but that's a shallow reading of a much deeper film. Cloud Atlas is one of the best films I've seen this year and one of the most satisfying.

Seeing it first on Tuesday at the Toronto Film Festival -- the first of five films I saw during the day -- set the bar rather high and none of the other films I saw approached its ambition. The only one that came close was also the one that resembled it least: What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. A modernized version of the Henry James novel, it offers a look at divorce from the viewpoint of 5-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), whose rock-star mother (Julianne Moore) and art-dealer father (Steve Coogan) grow increasingly hostile until they split. But the directors always focus on the little girl, keeping the marital battles out of sight (but not earshot) of the camera, showing instead the parts that young Maisie is exposed to.

This commentary continues on my website.