HBOGo did something pretty clever in the last month, by putting all eight “Harry Potter” films in one place for the first time, it generated an awful lot of interest in a movie series that concluded nearly a decade ago. Beat that, Marvel!–with your too many Superheroes crammed in one place like a merchandising machine.
Anyway, it’s time to rank which of these movies is the best, which is the “worst,” and everything in between. Although keep in mind that even the worst Harry Potter film is better than the best “Fast and Furious” movie.
Rank: Last…“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”…Place in Series: 4th film…Like I said, this movie is better than the majority of big-budget blockbusters coming out today, but there’s just something a little off here. And that’s more than a little curious because the film does do a few things really well: it’s the first film in the series that doesn’t begin with Harry’s loathsome (and tiresome) muggle relatives, Brendan Gleeson is fantastic as Mad-Eye Moody, it kills off an awkward teen-Robert Pattison before we all knew how annoying he would be become, and it introduces an adult version of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, rivaling his Nazi work in “Schindler’s List” for most terrifying performance), finally set loose on the world. Still, the events feel too hurried, the rythym is off for the entire thing, you can feel too many of the book’s events being condensed for the film, and the otherwise notable British director Mike Newell (the first time the series had used a Brit) seems content to make a fairly generic blockbuster movie more than a Harry Potter movie. The series whimsical Britishish-ness is steamrolled into something just a little bit cheaper and less magical. And David Tennant is lip-smackingly obvious as the villain, with even Voldemort’s introduction feeling a little less mystical and mysterious than it should. Best Scene: An underwater rescue during the second of the tournament’s challenges. Grade: B-
Rank: 7th…“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”…Place in the Series: 1st film…Not a bad film at all, and really this is probably the only one that smaller kids can even watch. It sets up the series nicely, and many viewers (especially parents of small kids) will probably prefer this to the much darker last half of the film series. And even though director Chris Columbus gets criticized for being too kid-friendly and sentimental, his directing style may be a little more in line with Rowling’s warmly mischevious and wonder-filled books than David Yates’s relatively grim, dry take on the material (even if those movies are better overall). Best Scene: It’s a tie between the instant-classic Quidditch match and the sorting hat scene where Harry and all his friends get placed into their respective houses, with Harry most definitely not wanting to go to Slytherin. Grade: B+
Rank: 6th…“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”…Place in the Series: 2nd film…A darker, cooler, tighter film than the first “Harry Potter” movie, and also the last where Richard Harris (who died after filming) plays Dumbledore. Taking nothing away from Michael Gambon’s sly, stellar work as a more ambiguous Dumbledore, Harris exudes parental warmth here, and makes it easier to see why Harry trusts him so completely. Kenneth Branaugh is also a goofy delight, playing against type as a vain-glorious showboat professor, although the film’s biggest impression is a teenage Voldemort that foreshadows the menace to come. Best Scene: Most would likely single out Harry’s duel with the Basilisk (and it is a showstopper) but his creepy stand-off against Aragog the giant spider and some of the joyriding in that flying jalopy left a bigger impression on me. Grade: B+
Rank: 5th…“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”…Place in the Series: 6th film…A so-so film that’s only really remembered for Dumbledore’s death at the end. A lot of elements feel a little repetitive (it’s the last film set during the course of a Hogwarts school year, which feels especially weird that it’s business-as-usual given that the whole world now knows Voldemort is back) and if it weren’t for Jim Broadbent’s loopy work as a professor just a little too eager to cater to “great” students, this would probably be ranked lower. Although I liked that this is–by far–the cheeriest and least heavy of the David Yates directed outings, I’m also not big on the fact that Dumbledore interrupts Harry’s date with a black waitress at the beginning (then lingers on it weirdly), and this movie completely jettisons Harry’s crush on Katie Leung’s Cho Chang for the blander Jenny Weaselly. Best Scene: Many might single out Dumbledore’s death, but the real stand-out is an early scene with a very young Tom Riddle, who Dumbledore visits at an orphanage. Grade: B+
Rank: 4th…“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”…Place in the Series: 5th film…I can see why so many people hate this film, I really can (it’s routinely listed as the least favorite among audiences) because it’s actually the darkest one. Sure, you could make a case that the “Deathly Hallows 1” or “2” is technically scarier or Dumbledore’s death in the 6th book is darker, but this film really gets under your skin in a totally different way. In it, Voldemort is back but the Ministry of Magic refuses to admit he’s back, and is actually printing out propaganda against Harry Potter and Dumbledore. The rebel-good guys “Order of the Phoenix” are really fighting a war of ideas before the physical battle breaks out, and Voldemort appears to be disappearing good wizards left and right, shaping a battlefield that hasn’t begun yet. To make matters worse, the loathsome Dolores Umbridge (my pick for a scarier villain than Voldemort) appears at Hogwarts to “change the curriculum” from an experience-based happy place to an ultra-strict, test-only environment where the kids are not actually learning anything. Dolores pits students against each other, enforces a stricter dress code (and lack of intimacy between students), and hates most of the students she’s pretending to “help.” The only drawback is that Yates—the dreariest director of the series and a mediocre, joyless one outside of it—is behind the helm, and shoots certain scenes (like the death of Sirius Black) as if they were mere items on a checklist. Best Scene: There’s a fantastic duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore towards the end of the movie, but there’s a scene where Dolores–in a faux-cheery room of bright pink and cats–tortures Harry and plays on his guilt to even get him to believe he deserves it. It’s a chilling scene that makes you think Rowling might have got on the bad side of some of the bad teachers we all knew growing up. Grade: A-
Rank: 3rd…“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”…Place in the Series: 3rd film…This is technically my pick for “2nd” best since I really consider “Deathly Hallows” to be one complete movie released in two parts mostly for marketing reason. And I can easily see why many consider “Azkaban” to be the best in the series. After a somewhat wonky start (involving Daniel Radcliffe’s voice-cracking under the strains of puberty for what feels like the only time in the series, and some shrunken heads on a skanky public bus), we’re treated to something fantastic: Harry sneaking into Diagon Alley, the sympathetic Professor Remus, the first arrival of the loathsome dementors, a time-loop ending that is the closest the films have come to capturing Rowling’s magical prose (the last half of the series is too-strait-laced, the first two films not quite sly enough), and Gary Oldman’s sensational work as Harry’s framed Godfather Sirius Black. That Oldman manages to be both feral and fatherly in a CGI-heavy kid’s film will remind you of how excellent he is in even blockbuster roles (he’s chameleonic in “Dracula,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Dark Knight” and any other 100-million dollar plus movie you can throw at him). And the ending is just about perfect. Best Scene: There’s lots to choose from, but the dementors focusing on Harry (both on the train and at a Quidditch match), and the time-loop ending or joyful final frame are all strong contenders. Grade: A
Rank: 2nd/1st…“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” and “Part 2”…Place in the Series: 7th film/8th film…I really think of this more as one film than as two-halves torn apart for marketing reasons. “Part 1” is really a film for adults, as Voldemort—the terrifyingly Nazi-esque Ralph Fiennes—is hunting down and killing wizards that preach that it’s okay for “pure blood” magical folk to breed with “muggles.” The parallels between this movie and the early days of WWII are obvious. [Just as “Order of the Phoenix” sometimes looks a lot like the times America is in right now.] Our heroes are on the run, and the visceral stakes look good on them, as “Part 1” is the only Harry Potter film not primarily set at Hogwarts, and that helps free the action at a time when the series was beginning to feel a little stale.
Some have compared “Part 1” to the “Empire Strikes Back” as it’s mostly a film where our heroes spend a few hours getting their butt-kicked, but the series looks all the better for it. Still, many will more likely enjoy “Part 2,” a rousing, fully satisfying conclusion that gives you just about all you could hope for. Best Scene in Part 1: The horcrux’s are playing serious mind games with our heroes, so it’s satisfying when they find a way to destroy one. There’s also a solid chase scene where “The Order of the Phoenix” has to transport Harry, no matter the cost. Not to mention it’s particularly ghastly that Voldemort murders an old lady just to hide his snake in a place Harry might visit. Best Scene in Part 2: The whole thing is long-over-due money scenes, from Ron and Hermione kissing to destroying horcruxes to Bellatrix LeStrange’s looooooooong deserved death. But it’s hard to beat the final showdown between Voldemort and Harry, dovetailing nicely with the final scene of Harry’s son attending Hogwarts for the first time. Grade: A