“You’re a wizard Harry.” The one line that started it all back many years ago.
From J.K. Rowling’s electrifying books to the adaptations onscreen, Harry Potter initiated the vanguard of modern big-budget filmmaking and pop culture wonder and phenomenon. The Wizarding World lore was once held in the confines of Rowling’s art but escalated to thrilling heights once the first adaptation of The Sorcerer’s Stone was in theaters in 2001. Grossing a whopping $974 million worldwide, the dawn of a new enchanting era was upon us. What spawned was the new generation of sensational and magical moments, and it progressed triumphantly forward for the next decade till the grand finale in The Deathly Hallows (Part 2).
As someone who was (and still remains) a diehard fan of the books and movies (and some of the mythology), the series remains the flagbearer for generational blockbusters, inspiring many film series such as The Lord of the Rings, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, The Hunger Games tetralogy, the Twilight saga, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more.
The series recently celebrated its 20th anniversary (available on HBO Max), a warmly bracing moment for folks that wanted to see the iconic trio reunite with other satisfying insights and recollections of the other people that made this all possible. We all must thank Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint for making the trio of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley work.
So, let’s rank each film to recall the magic once more. (Small preface: all the Harry Potter films are good to superb, so one’s list may also vary considerably from the list below, and this list does not include the Fantastic Beasts spinoff features. And there are some vital spoilers ahead.)
#8 Chamber of Secrets
The sequel to Harry’s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is very dark and enlivening. The Chamber of Secrets captures a tense, (borderline) bone-chilling atmosphere for Harry and his friends, as the school becomes terrorized by abnormal events with folks getting petrified and messages staying behind in blood that the secret chamber of Salazar Slytherin has opened once more. Many have suspicions that it may be Harry’s classmate foe, Draco Malfoy, the gatekeeper Hagrid or even Harry himself due to his ability to communicate with snakes (and landing in the most precarious positions when horrific things occur).
Along the way, the film delves into the dark history of Hogwarts, recalling the one peculiar Tom Riddle (who in present-day is the dark villain Lord Voldemort), and Harry must confront the past while dealing with the mischievous, irritating house-elf Dobby.
Director Chris Columbus returns to helm the sequel with a dense yet faithful direction. However, it does come with a hefty 161-minute runtime that becomes infused with a meandering emotion and lack of compelling momentum at moments. It feels as a repeat of the first movie, Sorcerer’s Stone, with its reattachment to the events that occurred already. Sometimes, it fails to coalesce as the feature moves along with several elements from Moaning Myrtle to the Polyjuice Potion CGI recreation scenes to the Gilderoy Lockhart nonsense. If there’s a film in the series to claim it’s “too much of a good thing,” this might be it.
But, it’s still a satisfying outing with some great performances and extreme loyalty to the book material that many Potter fans can look back on in today’s time. For instance, Dobby eventually becomes a favorite once he returns in Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows. The chamber becomes revisited for a crucial element in Part 2 as the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione realize it has a weapon (Harry used already) to assist in their defeat of Voldemort in the finale.
#7 Deathly Hallows – Part 1
Speaking of the finale, The Deathly Hallows starts with a meditative and menacing approach as to how our trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron are on the run after their entire world becomes trampled by the dark forces of Voldemort, who is searching for the ultimate source of power to achieve immortality. The trio must learn to live in a world outside of Hogwarts while maintaining their bond and love as they search for Voldemort’s Horcruxes, objects that a dark wizard or witch has hidden a piece of their soul in, hence their only chance of defeating the Dark Lord.
Once they find one, it meddles with their lives and personalities, leading to disastrous consequences. And Hermione continues to stumble upon the symbol revealed later as “The Deathly Hallows,” which, when all three objects (The Elder Wand, The Resurrection Stone, and Cloak of Invisibility) are wielded, allows the wizard/witch to become a master of death.
The feature starts with a bang and continues to roll along until the final moment when Voldemort acquires the Elder Wand. The problem is, this is part one of the grand finale. Director David Yates remains faithful, but the payoff does not reap the rewards (until part two comes out a year later). The penultimate chapter loses a lot of traction in its second half, relying on this directionless hunt while maintaining intact. You have the Horcruxes at stake, the Hallows on the mind (the focal point of this story), Albus Dumbledore’s (hidden) backstory, Ron and Hermione’s subtle love, and the increasing severity of the situation all unfolding for the trio.
But none of these threads get tied up nicely until the story reaches the other half. So it’s times like this where we question if it was right to split the finale into two parts.
So, while many of us were marveling at how this feature was getting us warmed up for the mega feast and dessert in part two, others were sulking at how prosaic the first part was. Compared to another part one feature, Avengers: Infinity War exploded with tons of characters, action, and side plots (arguably too many). But, it produced a scintillating cliffhanger that forced us to watch the follow-up after the villain won and half of all life disintegrated.
Don’t get me wrong: there are amazing moments in the first part of the Deathly Hallows, though, particularly with the fun sky, biker chase sequence, the Ministry infiltration under disguise to the return of Dobby, and assistance of the trio at Malfoy Manor. And the brilliant dance scene with Harry and Hermione subtly reminded us that these kids (soon-to-be adults) carry the world’s weight on their shoulders while standing alone. That gives an intriguing depth to the first half of the final ride.
#6 Order of Phoenix
It’s no easy feat to take an 800-page book and streamline it on the big screen, but David Yates does an admirable job. As only the second film of his career, that alone is worth the ticket price.
Order of Phoenix is Harry Potter’s plaguing journey into madness as the character starts having nonstop, uncontrollable nightmares and hallucinations of his archenemy. Yates continues this thematic interpretation of power and corruption throughout the feature as the Ministry of Magic makes its presence known in Hogwarts after they continue to ridicule Dumbledore and Harry’s comments that Lord Voldemort has returned.
Dumbledore continues to distance himself from Harry, so Harry must embrace his friends while trying to initiate a small army to prepare them for the upcoming war between good and evil. He must avoid the dodgy government presence, especially the twisted, diabolical Dolores Umbridge, who single-handedly storms the film to shut down the good and re-incentivize the bad. And the return of Sirius Black gives a deepening pathos to the feature and Harry Potter’s arc.
It’s a bold film with some new directions (notably a much different opening and a less sanguine tone). The third act is wickedly arresting and touching as Harry and his friends battle some of their foes. Dumbledore and Voldemort duke it out for the first and only time in a colorful duel that (literally) sends the Ministry into shambles.
Sirius Black’s death at the hands of his cousin? That breaks all of Harry and us.
Strong performances (particularly Imelda Staunton’s Umbridge), themes, and showcases of generations of unrest and war at the hands of evil make Order of Phoenix an impactful entry in the series (and the precursor to the inevitable conflict).
#5 Sorcerer’s Stone
The first feature that initiated it all many years ago.
Sure, cynical viewers can claim it had an inexperienced cast at the helm and weak CGI effects compared to today, but everything about this feature is told and explored through the lens of an 11-year old. We witness magic spells, ghosts flying around, broomsticks flying, disgusting creatures like trolls and three-headed dogs, etc. Director Chris Columbus’s direction and the set design make Hogwarts feel like a magical place.
Harry Potter lives a muggle (non-magical) life, with a scar on his head and the worst cousins possible. Once the tall Hagrid shows up on his doorstep and tells him of his status as a wizard, his whole life changes in a heartbeat. He soon meets Hermione and Ron, and the trio develops a beautiful friendship that carries forward for the remainder of the franchise. Harry makes history, friends, and foes on this adventure but soon learns of Lord Voldemort, the murderer of his parents. Recognizing there is a sinister plot on hand that may allow Voldemort to return to power, Harry and his new companions must go on a quest by finding the mystical Sorcerer’s Stone.
The light-hearted feature is an excellent joyride into this new world and paved the way for what greatness we’d witness in the next decade. Is it the best of the series? Probably not, but it’s integral to developing this entire book-to-film adaptation series.
#4 Half-Blood Prince
Thrilling, dark, and quite humoring, the sixth installment combines substance and style into a dark horse contender for one of the best Harry Potter features.
Everything about its visual flair, mesmerizing atmosphere, and stellar performances of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore and Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape makes it feel vibrant and enticing. Whereas Chamber of Secrets got trapped with some odd storytelling subplots before the striking finale, each in Half-Blood Prince has meaning and gradually escalates until the heartbreaking ending.
Director David Yates returns fresh from Order of Phoenix and brilliantly balances the goofy and foreboding tones. On the one hand, Harry and Ron are talking about Ginny Weasley’s and Hermione’s skin. At the same time, Snape confronts Draco Malfoy for his involvement in trying to experiment in killing off Albus Dumbledore. Heck, Malfoy has conflicting reservations when trying to follow through with the Dark Lord’s orders. Additionally, the feature gives Tom Felton a chance to shine under the bright lights after playing second fiddle (primarily) to Daniel Radcliffe and Co. for the past five films.
Harry, meanwhile, works with Dumbledore to discover Voldemort’s past as Tom Riddle and how he found his success for partial immortality: the Horcruxes. He also gets some intriguing notes from a mysterious potions book belonging to the “Half-Blood Prince.” The golden trio also battles love and demons, with Hermione and Ron slowly getting together and Harry sharing a kiss with Ron’s sister, Ginny.
The story builds to its crescendo superbly, with Harry and Dumbledore believing they acquired a Horcrux of Voldemort’s after a near-death experience, only for Snape to get involved, betray them, and kill Dumbledore before escaping with the Death Eaters. Like most of this sixth installment, the tone swings from laughter to tears in minutes.
It feels like all hope is lost as Hogwarts is without its great defender, and the Horcrux found is revealed to be a fake. Thus, Harry decides not to return next year until he finds and destroys all the Horcruxes. Hermione and Ron join him, and they watch Dumbledore’s phoenix fly away freely.
If not for the vigor and engrossing spectacle of the three features ranked above it, the Half-Blood Prince would easily be the best of the series. Nonetheless, it’s a breath of much-needed fresh air before the mighty thrilling finale(s).
#3 Goblet of Fire
Talk about an unforgettably dark and complex feature.
The Goblet of Fire reigns supreme in exploring a spine-chilling atmosphere and flavor, ranging from the ruthless tasks for the Triwizard Tournament to the first appearance of Lord Voldemort in the third act. Heck, even the opening scene nightmare has an elder man stumble across Voldemort and his supporters, which leads to his death. Never before has a Harry Potter feature felt such gloom and dread that everyone legitimately fears for these teenagers’ lives.
This time, the burgeoning adolescent theme is spiced up, leaving the trio to deal with confusing attention and budding romance. After spending the first three features with a light-hearted tone and primitive themes, the fourth installment becomes more maturing and daring with its core principles. The risk of pushing the PG-13 rating becomes refreshing and enthralling simultaneously for our magic folk club.
In this journey, Harry Potter becomes entangled with the Triwizard Tournament and must risk his life and sanity to make it through the end with assistance from all sides. He stumbles across fire-breathing dragons, scary underwater mermaids, and a life-changing maze that leads him to the rebirth of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his returning supporters. The stakes of the battle between good and evil have never been higher.
Some might complain about the long runtime and dragging side plots. Still, this film shows incredible vulnerability for our protagonist and some disturbing moments that will linger till the closing credits.
The Goblet of Fire felt like the most adult of the series, coupled with incredible performances, themes, music, and tones; it realizes that we’re practically convinced to join the darkness.
#2 Prisoner of Azkaban
Holy hell, what a Harry Potter film.
Director Alfonso Cuaron vividly captures J.K. Rowling’s oeuvre regarding the mood, discovery, and lurking danger of Harry Potter all in one go. Harry Potter and the world are warned of Sirius Black breaking out of prison, as Black seeks to target Harry for his past confrontation with Lord Voldemort. Cuaron directly alters the look and feel of the presentation of the third film while expanding the world much further. In that sense, he makes an unusually intense, swift, and terse movie.
Marvel at how tactile this feature is, from the Knight Bus flying around London to the hooded Dementors creeping around Hogwarts because the film feels like a DaVinci painting. Harry, Ron, and Hermione come presented in a much more independent manner. Michael Gambon charges straight forward with the baton in hand as a replacement for Dumbledore (after Richard Harris’s tragic passing). David Thewlis gets ample time to shine as Professor Lupin, and Alan Rickman is always a treat as Severus Snape.
The Time-Turner sequence is f***ing brilliant, allowing the course of history to be changed, and servicing the character and themes to unremarkable success. Harry constantly seeks that father figure he has never had while learning what kind of great wizard he can become someday. By the time he conjures the massive Patronus, it feels as if the audience becomes destined to see the evolution of Harry Potter forever.
With Alfonso Cuaron’s direction, John Williams’s score, and a phenomenal story at hand, Prisoner of Azkaban never disappoints. Some can argue that this should be at the top of this list.
#1 Deathly Hallows – Part 2
This writer vividly recalls watching this finale on opening day on July 15th, 2011. And if we’re talking about a payoff in the grand scheme of things, it does it in every manner possible. Emotionally, physically, you name it, it checks off all the boxes and then some in a magical fashion.
Director David Yates hits the ground from the start and then turns it up to 11 for the rest of the ride. Everything about Part 2 feels operatic as the trio realizes they must return to the one place where the magic all started: Hogwarts. The action, storytelling, emotion, and music all elevate our heart rates as the trio is racing to finish off the last of Voldemort’s Horcruxes and end him once and for all. On the same night, they and their friendly forces will be challenged by dark forces in every manner possible as the Dark Lord’s villainous presence makes the battle captivating and enriching.
Yates revels in the exhilarating moments and then slowly stops time with shattering results, including several favorites’ deaths. And never once is it faulty because the films have stood anchored by characters we’ve come to understand and love for years. As the audience, we become breathless and invigorated by these small and significant moments in the finale. It all lands, whether it’s the Gringott’s break-in, the relentless fire in the Room of Requirement, or the moments where Harry embraces his friends and family.
And who can forget what kind of hero Severus Snape was? The same man we all loathed for years because of his constant dejection of Harry Potter and his friends, and secretly, he was working with Dumbledore to protect Harry at all costs out of unbridled love for his mother, Lily. In the beginning, we got a close-up shot of this individual played by the outstanding late Alan Rickman, and his honor resonates even by the end of the feature.
And then finally, we come to Harry Potter, who learns from Snape’s memories that he must make the ultimate sacrifice. For ten years, the same individual we watched grow and evolve realizes he is a Horcrux himself and must surrender to ensure Voldemort does not live eternally. Summoning The Resurrection Stone to see his former loved family once more pulled us into the moment, so Harry would be ready to die once he stood mere feet from Voldemort.
Then, since Voldemort’s fragment protected Harry, he pushed through to the end to take on the Dark Lord by himself and finally won decisively, ending the reign of terror on the Wizarding World.
The psychology, nonstop action, superb storytelling, colorful visuals, and epic (which might be an understatement) third act make the Deathly Hallows Part 2 unmatched. Hell, even the finale serves as a glorious inspiration for franchise cappers to raise the expectations further moving forward.
The marketing phrase “It All Ends Here” epitomized everything that makes the final feature of the Harry Potter series monumentally stupendous.