You’ve watched them over and over, you’ve probably got a Deathly Hallows symbol tattooed on your arm, and you definitely already know what your Patronus is... but which is the best Harry Potter movie? Can any of them live up to the books? Is Umbridge the best villain of all time? Does Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them even count as a Harry Potter film? I’m definitely in a place to answer at least one of those questions with this definitive list of the best of the magical bunch. Let’s get, errr, Rowling.
9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Despite paving the way for the rest of the movies, you can probably already see that Chris Columbus’ debut adaptations are sitting at the very bottom of the Potter pile. He might now be in charge of a Five Nights at Freddy’s movie and be responsible for Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire but Columbus’ slavish silver screen Potter attempts manage to make the source material oddly paint by numbers.
Chamber of Secrets isn’t quite T (for Troll) though. It’s still got a giant murderous snake that lives in the walls (Basilisky business), exciting Quidditch matches, the kids are still at that adorable stage, and the perfect casting of Kenneth Branagh as the entirely inept Professor Gilderoy Lockhart is a glowing example of the British talent commanded by the franchise. While it’s not until Prisoner of Azkaban that things get really dark, the horrifying mystery at the heart of Chamber of Secrets is dealt with bravely, if ploddingly with a massive 161 minute run time. Like a Blast-Ended Skrewt with its stinger removed, magical but a little too safe.
8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
It feels like sacrilege to put the first movie so low. The John Williams score twinkling for the first time… that defining shot of Hogwarts against an inky black starry sky… Diagon Alley... Yet it’s important to note that your memories of Harry receiving his letter are all about the first time you saw this world brought to life, not of the film itself which is distinctly average compared to what followed. Regardless though, it sets the scene for everything to come and if nothing else is two and a half hours of the promise of future excitement.
Richard Harris’ Dumbledore is a bittersweet joy as he welcomes the adorable Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint to their future lives as Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and the joy of experiencing Rowling’s world for the first time can’t be undersold. Chris Columbus direction might be plodding but the goblins of Gringotts, meeting Hagrid, learning Quidditch with the most chipper of Scots and entering the Gryffindor common room are all silver screen joy. This is a universe of so much potential that enraptures its readers and in that respect, the designers and casting professionals did everything right. It’s the ultimate in magical wish fulfillment. We just won’t talk about CGI Fluffy who hasn’t aged particularly well...
7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
It’s a well documented fact that your favourite moments from books will be cut, trimmed, or just plain deleted from the inevitable movie adaptation. It doesn’t make it any easier though and Four Wedding and a Funeral director Mike Newell’s The Goblet of Fire was the first time that serious cuts had to be made. The thickest of Rowling’s tomes in the series so far, sacrifices had to be made as Harry’s name flew out of the Triwizard cup, forcing him into a perilous competition against rival magical schools.
Sure there’s a lot to enjoy as the students attend their first dances, Brendan Gleeson joyously munches on the scenery as the grizzled Mad Eye Moody, and we get the history of a Death Eater known as Barty Crouch, but a lot of the movie feels like a highlights reel. The introductory section at the Quidditch World Cup feels rushed and strained and it’s obvious just how difficult it is to fit in Rowling’s carefully constructed narrative cohesively into under three hours. Regardless, it makes it to the final showdown with a newly reborn Lord Voldemort and sets up a seriously dark hat trick to follow.
6. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Of course it counts as a Harry Potter movie! The first of five movies following Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his quest for those titular Fantastic Beasts, this first Rowling-penned screenplay doesn’t just give us a background to the author of one of Harry’s school books, but goes back to the age of a younger Grindelwald, the previous dark owner of the Elder wand. The joy here is a whole new magical world that we’ve never seen before as we explore American wizardry in 1920s New York. MACUSA, the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic is introduced, the nefarious Second Salemer witch hunters surface, and we experience a very different culture where No-maj (US muggles) aren’t allowed to even make contact with wizards.
A deft blend of humour and darkness, Fantastic Beasts is carried by its excellent cast. Redmayne bumbles through New York as the nature loving Newt, Katherine Waterston is the entertainingly furious ex-auror Tina, and Alison Sudol is the adorably charming Queenie. Add in Dan Fogler as the No-maj baker who stumbled into the adventure in the bank and the Harry Potter movies suddenly evolve into child free zones where the possibilities are darker, even if there are Nifflers filling themselves with gold coins. The future of the franchise is certainly intriguing as we await a meeting with young Dumbledore played by Jude Law in this year’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
5. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009)
Here’s where director David Yates really started to use his deluminator. Just like the books, The Half Blood Prince was when Potter got darker than ever. Muggle murders as Death Eaters swarm the Millennium Bridge in London, a Death Eater attack on the Weasley home, a history of the young Tom Riddle and, yes, the horrific and tragic death of Dumbledore. *sob* How could she do it to us? While Hogwarts is still reasonably safe, the peril that lies outside the gates is palpable.
There’s an enjoyably grown up theme here too. Teen hormones are everywhere - IT seems to make sense to get with everyone in sight if you’re about to be murdered by dark wizards - and the will they/won’t they Harry/Ginny relationship is enjoyably handled amidst the madness. The Half Blood Prince also adds the brilliant Jim Broadbent to the cast as Professor Horace Slughorn, a pompous but good hearted soul who once gave a young Voldemort some seriously risky information. As Harry and Dumbledore work together to find the various Horcruxes of Voldemort’s soul, there’s a truly thrilling narrative at work that’s deftly handled by Yates. It’s dark, it’s scary, and it knows it.
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)
And suddenly the series which had started out as a children’s movie descends into its grimmest hour. Death, fury, murder, torture, and the death of Dobby. The first of the films not to feature a trip to Hogwarts, suddenly life is much more dangerous for our exhausted magical trio. There’s no going through the motions here for the actors either. Without the safe walls of Hogwarts, real emotions and real tragedy is the order of the day, making Deathly Hallows Part 1 an impressive and genuinely emotional journey. Acting chops are challenged but there’s a proper sense of gravitas to proceedings.
The decision to separate the final book into two movies pays dividends here as David Yates takes the right amount of time to line up the final movie of the almost decade long franchise. One particular highlight - other than the painful loss of Dobby, Mad-Eye Moody, and Hedwig - is the addition of a beautiful animation to explain the tale of the three brothers and the mythical titular Deathly Hallows. Helena Bonham Carter too is a livewire as Bellatrix Lestrange who heads into the follow up with the blood of Dobby on her hands as well as Sirius Black from earlier in the franchise.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)
What’s not to love about the Battle of Hogwarts? Neville victoriously becomes a hero and beheads a snake! Molly practically quotes Aliens at Bellatrix Lestrange, and the noseless Ralph Fiennes is superb as a crowing triumphant Lord Voldemort. The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a truly fitting finale for the series even if it does feature the terrible scene at the end where 16-year-olds pretend to be 40. Hogwarts, a place of such safety and previous happiness, becomes a battleground and Yates effortlessly steers us through some truly thrilling set pieces where death is a very real prospect for characters we have seen grow old for the better part of a decade.
Snape’s downfall is tragically touching as we witness his grim death through frosted glass, Harry’s realisation and acceptance of his true destiny is genuinely heart wrenching, and there’s a sense of gravitas that’s miles away from the happy go lucky feasts of the original movie. Deathly Hallows Part 2 feels like a true journey for the series and one that importantly doesn’t shy away from the terror that awaits in Rowling’s world. In the words of Albus Dumbledore though, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Also known as the book where Harry spoke in LOTS of caps, The Order of the Phoenix is a turning point for the magical series. Harry is (quite rightly) sadness and angst personified, Voldemort is well and truly back after the tragic demise of Cedric Diggory in The Goblet of Fire, and the wizarding world is in fascinating turmoil. The real coup here though is the brilliant Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge, the official appointed to regulate a ‘rogue’ Hogwarts as the Ministry of Magic denies the return of the Dark Lord.
Umbridge is a truly disturbing force to be reckoned with. Surrounded by kittens, pink, and doilies but physically torturing students by etching lines directly onto their skin, she has a gleeful nefariousness that would be recommended reading at super villain university. It’s no coincidence either that this is the first movie to be directed by David Yates whose innate understanding of Rowling’s world blends the humour and joy of Hogwarts with the nastiness of slews of incoming murderous dark wizards. The comedy of Umbridge’s ignored Educational Decrees is perfectly combined with the pain of Harry’s first romance, the swirling darkness outside of Hogwarts grounds, and the ultimately painful conclusion as young Mr Potter is left, once again, feeling very much on his own in the world.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Don’t you dare look at me like I’ve just hit you with a bat bogey hex. Harry’s third cinematic adventure is still the very best the franchise has to offer. The dark cinema of Children of Men director Alfonso Cuaron meshes perfectly with the inherently disturbing plot of an escaped maniac hunting Harry down to murder him. Where Chris Columbus’ wizarding world of the first two movies is remarkably bright regardless of the spirit of Voldemort gradually returning, Cuaron brings something significantly more twisted and blackly comic to proceedings. Azkaban, at the time, was a breath of bleak new air and it still stands up today.
Harry’s hotel room in The Leaky Cauldron is filthy and layered with dust, the blowing up of Aunt Marge is deliciously unpleasant, a bird is happily eaten by the Whomping Willow, and Harry’s first trip on The Knight Bus is a surrealist nightmare narrated by Lenny Henry: ”If you have the pea soup, make sure you eat it, before it eats you…” And that’s even before the series lets Gary Oldman get his teeth into Sirius Black, the joys of the brilliant Timothy Spall as the snivelling Wormtail, and the introduction of the chilling Dementors. It doesn’t get better or, indeed, darker than this.