So what exactly happened at the Toronto Film Festival? Which films surged, died, took blows, and moderately gained or lost momentum? Sitting here at the Starbucks on Yorkville and possessed of nothing paralyzing in terms of insight or wind-sensing, here’s how the post-Toronto, award-level situation seems to be shaping up to me.

The biggest winner hands down was Sidney Lumet‘s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, which had little or nothing in the way of headwind coming in and is now regarded by every critic I’ve spoken to so far as one of the year’s absolute best, and by some (myself included) as a Best Picture contender. Costar Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, I feel, an undeniable Best Supporting Actor contender off of this.

The second biggest winner (in my eyes, at least) was Joe Wright‘s Atonement. I’ll be flabbergasted if it doesn’t end up a Best Picture nominee, and it seems nearly certain that a Best Supporting Actress nom is Vanessa Redgrave‘s for the taking.

Todd HaynesI’m Not There, Sean Penn‘s Into The Wind, Anton Corbijn‘s Control, Andrew Dominik‘s The Assassination of Jesse James and Tony Gilroy‘s Michael Clayton received the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh biggest success d’estime bumps.

The Coen brothersNo Country for Old Men held its own and then some. Anyone who knows anything recognizes this film as a landmark achievement, and perhaps the greatest mainstream art film built upon chases and killings and societal degradation ever made. I spoke to one major Midwestern critic who said he didn’t care for it all that much, but no one else was murmuring stuff along these lines.

Although Paul Haggis‘s In The Valley of Elah did well with a clear majority of critics (it’s currently hovering around 60% positive on Rotten Tomatoes) while bombing out with a few, I started to get an idea that it’s going to play even better with paying audiences and Academy members. The great Tommy Lee Jones‘ performance as a sad, confused father of a murdered Iraq War veteran is the ace in the hole.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age was the biggest crash-and-burn. It came in a presumptive Best Picture contender, and is now regarded as a film that may play commercially (no guesses ventured but some people go nuts for this kind of thing) and may snag a few tech nominations (costumes, production design) but that’s all.

The second biggest “damage” movie was Alan Ball‘s Nothing Is Private. I don’t agree with the neg-heads at all — I think it’s a strong, well-written, provocative drama with good characters. I understand why everyone was so upset, but I don’t think they’re fully considering the source (Alicia Erian‘s “Towelhead”) or giving the credit that Ball is due for handling the sexual stuff with restraint.

Jason Reitman‘s Juno kept its Telluride Film Festival momentum rolling, but the handicappers I spoke to seemed more respectful and moderately approving than elated or given to cartwheel orgasms.

Noah Baumbach‘s Margot at the Wedding deserves points for being a Chekhov play about a group of deeply fucked-up egotists who possess almost no redeeming characteristics, and for throwing in almost nothing that soothes or charms or mollifies except for the occasional laugh (of which there are relatively few). I truly respect Baumbach for playing it this way — he’s a ballsy director — but the fact is that it’s a fairly dislikable film in more ways than you can count. Almost everyone I spoke to felt this way, but it’s a film you have to at least respect.

Ang Lee‘s Lust, Caution played decently. My sense is that it’s a respected film. Nobody I spoke to slammed it with any fervor. It’s more of a double than a home run, but you can’t hit it into the bleachers every time.

George Romero‘s Diary of the Dead picked up mild buzz, but I heard some disses as well. I missed my last shot at seeing it last night, but a major L.A. critic said it has Iraq War echoes and metaphors that makes it arguably analagous to Brian DePalma‘s Redacted (which I never got around to seeing either) and Nick Broomfield‘s Battle for Haditha — neither of which seemed to gather huge fan bases.

Julie Taymor‘s Across The Universe was seen as a total wipe out. More than any other emotion or judgment or what-have-you, the thing it leaves you with is the question “why?” As in why was this made and who cares? One good thing: the high school-age lesbian singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” at a slow, steady tempo to a girl playing soccer nearby during gym class.

Sorry to be the bearer, but Terry George‘s Reservation Road didn’t seem to turn anyone on very much. It kind of fizzled, truth be told.

I didn’t see Lars and the Real Girl, but the universal consensus was that Ryan Gosling had added another notch to his cool-Brandoish-actor belt.

And Cate Blanchett emerged with serious Best Actress (or Best Supporting Actress) momentum for her I’m Not There performance as Bob Dylan.

I’ll run a Part Two on this piece later tonight or tomorrow, as it’s obviously incomplete. If anyone has any detections or assessments they feel should be added, please feel ree.