The Academy Awards might not be the conclusive arbiter of the best motion picture during a given year, but the films that end up taking home Oscar gold are indicative of their era’s mood. The end of the roaring 1990s saw box office smashes and romantic pictures, such as Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love and Gladiator, tapped for Best Picture.

Fast-forward to the latter half of the George W. Bush presidency and a nation beset by war, economic decline and endemic pessimism, and we find that the last four Oscar winners have been well-made but decidedly dour fare: Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed and No Country for Old Men.

This December, a glut of prestige films again rolled into a limited number of theaters and the mailboxes of various press and industry guild members, each with visions of year-end awards dancing in their heads. They included the usual highbrow entries whose themes span pedophilia, racism, domestic unrest and, of course, the Holocaust.

However, as I compiled my annual Top 10 list, a funny thing happened: Whereas I usually struggle to pare down potential selections, this year my depth chart bottomed out at five or six films. Soon, I realized I was considering too few of the too-usual suspects. While year-end hopefuls like The Reader, Defiance, Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button boast noteworthy acting performances, they all possess a languid, gloomy sameness that feels, well, so last year.

Just as Americans recently voted for change, the best in cinema during 2008 sprang from various genres and subject matters. Moreover, a noticeable air of optimism crops up: Slumdog Millionaire and WALL-E are obvious examples; Milk drew long-overdue attention to the issue of gay rights; Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky revived cheerfulness as an art form; even Frost/ Nixon managed to make Tricky Dick look sympathetic. Heck, five years ago the moviegoing public would not have found palatable the fictional, stylized destruction of New York City seen in Cloverfield.

There is even reason to see the sunny side of the Triangle’s movie market. Manyincluding this publicationhave long criticized the uneven release schedules that leave local art house theaters struggling to fill their screens throughout the year, only to juggle overlapping high-profile indie flicks at year’s end. However, we continue to be blessed with a large and growing number of theaters dedicated to such cinema: For example, during the week beginning Dec. 12, six of only 169 theaters nationwide showing Slumdog Millionaire were located in the Triangle.

My Top 10 list is not entirely footloose and fancy-free. But, as hope stages a comeback throughout the country, it turns out the cinema we need is the cinema we can believe in.

Best Film of 2008: Slumdog MillionaireDanny Boyle’s cinematic masala has it all: historical perspective, grim reality, whimsy, crime drama and starry-eyed romance. But, at its heart beats a redemptive, rags-to-rajah fable that transcends its jaundiced Mumbai milieu without aestheticizing it. Even the closing, Bollywood-inspired song-and-dance routine feels like the exhilarating metaphor for a world emerging from its Bush-era despondency.

2. The WrestlerCall it Requiem for the 1980s. Director Darren Aronofsky dials back the visuals flourishes for a gritty dissection of loss: of youth, fame, family and dreams. Mickey Rourke exposes the scars of botched surgeries and hard living to give a tour de force turn as an aging grappler unwilling to step away from the squared circle. And, Marisa Tomei reminds us that her Oscar win (for the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny) was not a mistake. The film’s finale manages to be both tragic and inspirational. Coming soon to the Triangle.

3. Rachel Getting MarriedAnne Hathaway proves she’s not just another pretty face in director Jonathan Demme’s best film since The Silence of the Lambs (yep, that includes Philadelphia). Written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney), the smart, multilayered screenplay unearths a family’s dormant tragedy and tensions on the eve of a transformational celebration.

4. MilkGus Van Sant’s uplifting, occasionally plaintive biopic of Harvey Milk fleshes out the complex facets of the gay rights activist’s life without obscuring his enduring message of tolerance, equality and pride. Sean Penn is the mesmerizing head of an ensemble cast that includes fine performances by James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin.

5. WALL-EIt is not uncommon for Pixar animation to be among any year’s best. What is strange is that the villain in the venerable studio’s most enterprising entrée to date is humankind itself. A Kubrickian pathos and intelligence permeates throughout; indeed, this is the movie A.I. should have been. With its sublime marriage of futuristic imagination and old Hollywood influences, the film celebrates love of the heart and home.

6. Revolutionary RoadThis long-awaited adaptation of Richard Yates’ luminous novel from director Sam Mendes is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the white-collar suburban set. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet deconstruct Jack and Rose in a brutally morose assault on Eisenhowerian conformity and domestic malaise. Look for a Triangle opening in the coming weeks.

7. Chop ShopNorth Carolina-born director Ramin Bahrani’s neorealist coming-of-age immigrant story is so authentic it could be mistaken at times for a vérité documentary. Set in the “Iron Triangle” of Willet’s Point in Queens, N.Y., Bahrani captures the genuine struggle to surmount a suffocating everyday inertia wrought by life’s hard circumstances while laying bare a near-dystopian America that, like the titular scrap yard, views and values its inhabitants like disassembled spare parts.

8. Iron Man and The Dark KnightThe year’s most popular comic-book adaptations earn dual mention. Of the two, I actually prefer the heady, sharply written Iron Man over the brooding, occasionally convoluted Dark Knight. But, both films ably realize their tableau’s larger-than-life possibilities and boast magnificent, career-defining performances from Robert Downey Jr. and the late Heath Ledger.

9. CloverfieldDescribed (derisively by some) as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project, this vérité depiction of young New Yorkers dislodged from their social circle conceit by an attacking colossus blends enough character development to allow the emotional tension to stand astride the carnage. The film also reminds us that all our technological ingenuity remains a feeble epoxy for a fragile society sometimes preyed upon by beasts, whether they’re fictitious maundering monsters or terrorists flying airplanes into buildings.

10. Young @ HeartThis documentary follows an acclaimed senior citizens chorus for seven weeks preceding a May 2006 concert in their hometown of Northhampton, Mass. There is glee as they belt out renditions of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” But, the true triumph is juxtaposing the ever-present specter of death against the unquenchable lust for life.