Is Hollywood gearing up for a year to remember? asks DAVID PARKINSON in his 2008 preview

If the Cannes-winning Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is anything to go by, arthouse cinema will be back to its best in 2008, after an indifferent couple of years. However, it's not such good news for those of you hoping for something new from mainstream movies, as Hollywood's preoccupation with comic-books, sequels, remakes and comebacks shows no sign of abating.

With the 22nd James Bond picture scheduled for the autumn and Star Trek XI - The Menagerie promised for next Christmas, this looks like being the year of the franchise. Christian Bale returns as Batman in The Dark Knight, while Edward Norton takes over the lead role in The Incredible Hulk. Elsewhere Robert Downey Jr is hoping to launch a series of his own as Tony Stark in the Marvel spin-off, Iron Man. Doubtless he'll succeed, as even misfires are now getting sequels, as Alien vs Predator - Reqiuem and National Treasure: Book of Secrets dismayingly demonstrate.

And then there's the high-tech remake, with the 1950s sci-fi paranoia classic The Day the Earth Stood Still being spruced up for a new age of American insecurity. However, the two most anticipated returns - John Rambo and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - suggest the national self-image is in vulgar health entering an election year, as 61-year-old Sylvester Stallone heads into the Burmese jungle to avenge the murder of some missionaries and 64-year-old Harrison Ford teams up with Cate Blanchett, John Hurt and Ray Winstone for Steven Spielberg's return to the kind of comic-strip caper he does best.

But there may just be some grounds for optimism. Back in the 1970s, defeat in Vietnam and the shame of Watergate prompted a slew of intelligent, introspective features examining the state of the nation. It's taken a while, but Hollywood finally seems ready to assess the momentous events of the Bush years, with some big names tackling topics linked to the so-called War on Terror. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts star in Charlie Wilson's War, which follows the covert efforts of a US congressman to arm the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan, while Brian De Palma recalls the brutal rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager in Redacted. The scarred psyche of a returning servicemen inspires the action in both Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah, in which respectively Ryan Phillippe goes AWOL to avoid a second tour of duty and Tommy Lee Jones searches for the son who can't face up to what he's seen in combat.

Jones also headlines Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men, as the Texan sheriff who goes in pursuit of Vietnam vet Josh Brolin, who has stumbled upon $2m in cash and a stash of heroin. And Vantage Point similarly depicts a corrupted country, as it pieces together the truth about an assassination attempt on the president from the testimony of five unreliable witnesses.

But there are signs that Hollywood is in the mood for healing, with a handful of high-profile pictures dealing with overcoming domestic crises. Widow Halle Berry finds solace with junkie Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire, while estranged siblings Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman settle their differences caring for ageing father Philip Bosco in The Savages and lost souls Diane Lane and Richard Gere find unexpected romance in Nights in Rodanthe. Elsewhere, terminally-ill Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman break out of hospital to do the things they never got round to doing in The Bucket List, while in the biopic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric excels as Jean-Dominique Bauby, the charismatic editor-in-chief of French Vogue, who developed a blinking alphabet to communicate with the outside world after he was stricken with 'locked-in syndrome', following a massive stroke at the age of 43.

If nothing else, it's going to be a big year for Oxford at the movies, with local film-maker Vicky Jewson making her debut with Lady Godiva, while the city reprises its most famous role in the big-screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Indeed, the next 12 months are packed with tempting period pieces, ranging from Roland Emmerich's caveman saga, 10,000 B.C., and the latest Uderzo and Goscinny outing, Asterix at the Olympic Games, to The Other Boleyn Girl (with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson competing for the hand of Eric Bana's Henry VIII) and There Will Be Blood, for which Daniel Day-Lewis has already won a raft of awards as a ruthless 19th-century Texan oil prospector. Also keep an eye out for George Clooney in the 1920s American football drama, Leatherheads, Mike Newell's adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and Ang Lee's wartime thriller, Lust, Caution.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter continue the costume theme in Tim Burton's take on Stephen Sondheim's ghoulish hit musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and the supposedly dormant genre gets another shot in the arm with Mamma Mia!, which combines Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and a host of Abba songs, and High School Musical 3: Senior Year.

After a disappointing 2007, the kidpic seems to be heading back on track with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian being joined on the roster by Dr Seuss's Horton Hears a Who, Pixar's robot charmer, Wall-E, and the irresistibly titled cartoon, Kung Fu Panda. There are more quaint critters on display in Madagascar 2 and Underdog, while those who prefer a little fantasy should make a note of The Spiderwick Chronicles, They Came From Upstairs and Jumper.

There's just room to recommend such comedies as Dan in Real Life, Juno, Margot at the Wedding, 27 Dresses and Be Kind Rewind and to wish you all the best for the viewing new year.