09/12/2013 07:44 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Live from Toronto International Film Festival: Wednesday, Sept. 11

Movies can amaze with their ability to not just take you out of yourself but to put in the middle of worlds you otherwise would never get a chance to see or experience. For me on Wednesday at the Toronto Film Festival, that meant traveling everywhere from 18th-century England to the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere to a small New England town in the late 1980s.

If film festivals are about discovering movies - such as Jason Bateman's hilarious Bad Words - they can also be about catching up with the buzz, as I did with Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, the one set in outer space. Cuaron's gripping film had the bloggers humming at Telluride and Venice before playing Toronto this week. It had already had two press screenings up here when I saw it on Wednesday - and that screening, in a theater that seated 500-plus, was almost full.

And for good reason: Gravity may be the year's most harrowing film, a stunning visual tour de force that will have you gripping your armrest, holding your breath and all those other things that a really tense movie can make you do.

It's amazing to contemplate the fact that 99 percent of this film was shot on a soundstage somewhere, because Cuaron makes you believe you are hurtling through the void with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They play two crew members of a space shuttle, concluding work on the Hubble telescope, when the worst occurs.

A missile strike on a Soviet satellite has created debris, which results in a cascading event: That debris destroys other satellites, creating a debris field hurtling toward the space shuttle at 20,000 miles per hour. When it hits, Clooney and Bullock - both in their spacesuits - wind up as the only survivors, with the shuttle itself destroyed and their oxygen on the wane. Their only hope: to float to the International Space Station, where there is air and a possible escape pod.

And that's it: two tiny people floating through a gravity-free environment where there seems to be no up or down while their air is dwindling. It's as basic as story-telling gets - and as compelling, thanks to gripping performances by Bullock and Clooney and the visual wizardry of a team of computer artists. Even the 3D seems to work well (which is the nicest thing I'm willing to say about it).

Bateman's Bad Words had caused a stir when it was sold for several millions earlier in the festival - which means that, at some point, you'll get to see this wildly inappropriate comedy. Bateman directed and stars, as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who exploits a loophole in the rules to enter the national spelling bee of under-12-year-olds, with the specific goal of winning it. All the parents of the word-crazy contestants hate him - but he doesn't care because he only wants one thing.

This commentary continues on my website.