Movies come and movies go, but some seem to last forever. And while many of the films that followed in its wake seem to have already been lost within the short-term memory of popular culture, Harry Potter seems to linger. The orphaned child who became a wizard was created by author J.K. Rowling and spawned a beloved series of novels, a beloved series of films, and now a spin-off prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from the many of the makers of those other hit movies.
Yes, Harry Potter seems to be with us forever now. But with eight whole movies, everyone is bound to have a favorite. This week on The Best Movie Ever we’ve asked our panel of critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each pick the one Harry Potter movie that they believe stands head and shoulders above the rest. They couldn’t agree on a thing (as usual).
Find out what they picked and why, let us know your favorite, and come back next Wednesday for another all-new, highly debatable installment of Crave’s The Best Movie Ever!
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
As a snarky twentysomething in 2001, the popularity of the Harry Potter novels and their subsequent feature film was immediately something to be suspicious of. When one is in their 20s, and they are presented with something that is primarily being consumed by children, the natural reaction is to recoil. Ask a college student what they think of One Direction, for instance. You are at the age when rejecting childhood things is the hip thing to do. As such, I and many of my peers roundly refused to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters. We didn’t want to be part of this dumb kiddie phenomenon, and were sure to voice that opinion as often as we could. That would make us cooler, right?
Roger Ebert changed my mind. He gave the film four stars and spoke eloquently about its enchanting qualities and magical tone. Simultaneously, I was granted an opportunity to see the film for free. I draped a cloth over my prejudices and went to the theater. And yes, dear readers, I was enchanted. It was a bright film that was indeed magical, and it was possessed of a childlike sense of discovery. I don’t know how fans of the novels were reacting, but I felt like I was discovering how wonderful the wizard world was with Harry.
As such, I entered Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a good deal of enthusiasm. Chamber of Secrets still had the childlike wonderment, but also a more cohesive story, more expansive characters, and, even more than the first, a quirky sense of humor; there is, for instance, a beat-up flying car that seems to operate under its own will. Kenneth Branagh deliciously hams it up as a blowhard wizard rock star teacher, and the late great Richard Harris projects an authoritative, but grandfatherly warmth which colors the film for the better.
The subsequent sequels were less impressive. Popular opinion is that the third film in the series is the best for its muddy qualities, street clothes, and darker tone. It’s also the first in the series that makes the enterprise feel less like an exploration of a world of wonder, and more like another rote thriller. The fourth film recaptures some of the magic, but by the time we get to the fifth, it’s all downhill. Going back to Chamber of Secrets reveals the height of the series and the glories of a grand kids’ entertainment.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
The Prisoner of Azkaban was the film where the Harry Potter series came of age. The world of Hogwarts had been built but it couldn’t continue as constructed, following every whimsy and book thread, because J.K. Rowling’s books by this juncture were getting thicker and thicker with tangents unrelated to Potter’s own coming of age. So Steve Kloves, who adapted each Potter book, adopted a new approach with Azkaban: he focused only on the sections where Potter was directly involved or witnessed events. There are still magical and imaginative asides, of course, but this is the first film where we view Hogwarts entirely from his vantage point.
What boosts Azkaban narratively is that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are all entering puberty. They’re slightly more rebellious and individual in their thoughts, their desires and even their dress (minor hair and uniform changes come into play here). Sexual awareness is introduced even if it isn’t acted upon. A runaway scenario is included. There’s just a little more edge in Azkaban from the teenagers, but also it’s necessary perhaps most for this story because wrongful imprisonment and the methods of retaining sanity while wrongfully imprisoned are expressed through the story of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
Ultimately, though, what really makes Azkaban the best Harry Potter film is that an auteur was behind the picture in Alfonso Cuaron. Yes, he was coming off a “sex picture” in Y Tu Mama Tambien, but there are elements in that road movie that lent itself very nicely to the Potter-verse. Cuaron has a patience behind the camera that his youthful characters lack. He is not bored in observing in the way that teens are bored by stillness and are prone to restlessness. That patience finds truths and in Azkaban, Cuaron gave us the truest expression of teen angst at Hogwarts.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
As Brian already pointed out, fealty to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels had become a bit of a luxury by the mid-point of the movie franchise, and after the second film in the series something would always have to go in order to crunch these things down to a meaningful running time. (Heck, even the first two movies managed to do away with the fan favorite Hogwarts poltergeist, Peeves.) This left many of the Harry Potter films, including The Prisoner of Azkaban, focused more on the plot and mythology of the series than the characters, or the enticing idea of living within Rowling’s magical world.
Except for Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the film that (mostly) got it right, and which plays most like watching a Harry Potter novel play out on camera. It’s an absurdly plotted motion picture, much like the big, since neither of them explain why Voldemort’s cronies go to such absurd lengths to accomplish a goal that could have been solved by a simple kidnapping. But it’s an adventurous treat to find Harry Potter shanghaied into a tournament of wizards, squaring off against dragons and mer-people and labyrinths filled with marvelous monsters.
But the real selling point of Goblet of Fire is Newell’s attention to detail, and the way those details fill the frame instead of drawing attention away from the characters. Christopher Columbus’s Harry Potter movies were a sightseeing tour in which pacing be damned, audiences were going to luxuriate in every fanciful concept. Alfonso Cuaron’s film ignored any detail that wasn’t specifically important to the plot (even if it would lead to plot holes later in the series), and David Yates’ films were solemn trudges through the darkest corners of the universe, where no joy dared be found.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a film in which childhood enthusiasm abounds, only to be wrenched away at an unexpected moment. It’s an escapist fantasy full of homework, in which the minutiae of the wizarding world matters, entertains, but doesn’t drag the story down. (And it’s also the film that took S.P.E.W. out of the movies, ruining Ron and Hermione’s first kiss down the road, but oh well, few films are perfect.) It’s the closest the films came to doing the books proper justice, and it also happens to be pretty darned spectacular. Best Harry Potter ever.