Asking a Harry Potter fan to rank their favorite films is a bit like asking someone to choose their favorite child — they’ll lie and say they can’t, but confide that if they had to pick one it would be Prisoner of Azkaban (it’s the golden child, what can we say). While each film has good moments and bad, some rise above the rest of the pack. For the 20th anniversary of the film that started it all, I’ve compiled my totally subjective and extremely biased ranking of all eight films from worst to best. Will you agree with these choices? Read on to find out!
WARNING: There are major spoilers for the Harry Potter franchise ahead. Read at your own risk.
8. Chamber of Secrets
This is possibly the least controversial placement on this list. Chamber of Secrets, while not an objectively bad film, is the weakest of the series. Part of the reason why is that the central trio is substantially weakened by Hermione being sidelined for part of the movie, meaning there is less opportunity for the three leads to interact and show off their excellent chemistry. Even with its placement on this list, there are aspects that are very well done, like the casting of Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy. Harry’s rescue of Ginny and confrontation with Tom Riddle is also a highlight. But Chamber of Secrets often feels like a bridge meant to prepare viewers lulled into a false sense of safety with Sorcerer’s Stone for the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, and tonally it has an issue moving between “fun children’s movie sequel” and “horror thriller that will scare the pants off your child.”
7. Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Did I cry watching Harry, Hermione, and Ron stand on the bridge outside Hogwarts for the last time? Yes. Did I cheer with the rest of the theater when Bellatrix got what she deserved? Also yes. Did I weep when the Weasleys cried over Fred’s body? I’m crying talking about it now. But the few moments of genuine emotion are overshadowed by the overwhelming sense that someone on the production team really wanted to make a big CGI battle and sacrificed character moments to do it. There are major changes from the books that do not serve the plot, like Harry ultimately snapping the Elder Wand in half and the entirety of Harry’s final battle with Voldemort. While some aspects of Deathly Hallows, Part 2 are a fitting finale for the franchise, it falls flat enough that it feels anticlimactic. Frankly, only the tear-jerking moments give it enough emotional weight to rank higher than Chamber of Secrets.
6. Half Blood Prince
Half Blood Prince is underrated as a film. Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon are both brilliant, with the final act twist and Dumbledore’s death one of the most moving scenes in all of Harry Potter. The confrontation between Harry and Snape is raw, and Daniel Radcliffe does some of his best work. I am particularly a fan of the choice to show the destruction the Death Eaters are causing in the first few scenes. It raises the stakes going into the final two films and adds a somber tone amid the love potions and teenage fights. However, Half Blood Prince can drag in places, and the aforementioned love storylines don’t always fit with the sense of dread the rest of the plot inspires.
5. Sorcerer’s Stone
It’s the one that started it all. Sorcerer’s Stone had to establish the entire world of Hogwarts while getting us invested in a trio of child actors who had not seriously acted prior to this film. In addition, this was 2001, where computer effects were still in their infancy. Director Chris Columbus captured lightning in a bottle with this one. While definitively a children’s film compared to the rest of the franchise, it is best described as a magical viewing experience. You are immersed from the first scene, and the wizarding world feels lived in and real. For fans of the books, it is faithful enough while still leaving room for surprises (my only gripe is the lack of Peeves, which apparently Columbus agrees with). Rewatching Sorcerer’s Stone leaves adult viewers with a childlike sense of joy, and while it lacks the maturity that comes later, it still holds up wonderfully.
4. Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Year Everyone Decided to Grow Their Hair Out, am I right? Ah, 2005. Goblet of Fire is one of the most interesting of the films, as it represents the point of no return for Harry when Voldemort is resurrected. It’s also the clear demarcation between the “kid” films and the “teen” ones, as it is the first of the series to be rated PG-13. The film gives us Cedric Diggory as well as Ralph Fiennes’ first appearance as Voldemort, both of which are welcome additions. And unlike Half Blood Prince, Goblet of Fire balances the fun aspects of the Triwizard Tournament with the sense of danger. The teen drama of the Yule Ball, contrasted with the showdown in the graveyard, makes Cedric’s death that much more impactful. It’s the first time we lose a young character like that, and it hits hard. Also, Ralph Fiennes has the time of his life chewing the scenery as Voldemort, and his return is one of the best moments in the entire series.
3. Deathly Hallows, Part 1
I am a Deathly Hallows, Part 1 defender, and I always will be. When the film was first released, the main critique was that its slow pace felt like a waste of time so close to the finale of the franchise. But that view was clouded by the emotions surrounding the decision to split the final book in half and release the second part a year later. If audiences had the chance to view both parts back to back with no wait time (as they can now do with streaming or on Blu-Ray), Deathly Hallows, Part 1‘s character moments would have resonated more.
Harry and Hermione’s slow dance, Hermione laying a wreath at Harry’s parents’ grave, the entirety of the escape from Malfoy Manor, and Dobby’s death are stunning. You can feel Harry, Ron, and Hermione become adults through the trauma they experience, and it hurts while also showing how much they’ve grown. While Deathly Hallows, Part 2 gives us the big magical showdown with all the bells and whistles that the movies have been building towards, Deathly Hallows, Part 1 gives us the chance to mourn for the loss of innocence of our trio and sets the stage emotionally for the battle to come.
2. Order of the Phoenix
Listen, this film was ranking highly because we meet my beloved Luna Lovegood. Her quirky self is played perfectly by Evanna Lynch, and I love her zany chemistry with Harry that carries through the final four films. But Order of the Phoenix also introduces us to Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange, with Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter breathing deliciously evil life into both roles. The formation of Dumbledore’s Army is also a treat, as we get to see each of its members shine through their training and Harry come into his own as a leader. The production design is stunning as always, and the Room of Requirement is one of the best sets in the series. It’s the first film to allow Harry to deal with the emotional fallout of all that he’s been through — making the loss of Sirius that much more shocking and tragic. Daniel Radcliffe’s silent scream is a gut punch moment, as is Lupin (David Thewlis) dragging Harry away with tears streaming down his face.
1. Prisoner of Azkaban
There is no argument on this one. Prisoner of Azkaban is a masterpiece from start to finish, with Alfonso Cuaron infusing every frame with his unique sensibilities. We finally get the Marauders’ backstory (though admittedly less than most readers would like). David Thewlis breaks hearts as Lupin with his lovely, gentle performance, and Gary Oldman manages to make Sirius Black seem threatening until the moment we realize he’s not the true villain. It’s the first of the films to emphasize that the previous war Harry’s parents died in is truly at risk of repeating itself, making James and Lily feel real instead of ghostly martyrs. There are several stand up and cheer moments, like Hermione finally giving Draco the punch across the nose he deserves. But the moody production design and direction really set Prisoner of Azkaban apart.
It’s darker and scarier, but somehow Cuaron maintains the sense of wonder of the first two films. The choir singing “Double Trouble” is not included in the books, but it adds to the film. For me, the highlight of the film is the Dementor attack on the train mirrored with Harry conjuring his Patronus to save Sirius. The creature design of the Dementors is stunning, and both scenes evoke genuine terror. But Cuaron doesn’t rely on the CGI to tell the story, teasing out performances from his actors that would get the audience in the correct headspace even if the Dementors were unseen by the viewer.
These days, it’s seen as trendy for renowned directors to scoff at the idea of directing an “event” movie, bemoaning the supposed loss of creative freedom. But Cuaron proved that directors can put their own individual stamp on a franchise film while remaining true to the stories that come before and will follow. Prisoner of Azkaban is undoubtedly an Alfonso Cuaron film, but it fits neatly into the Harry Potter franchise — which is not an easy feat to pull off.
Do you agree with our list? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to check out our other Harry Potter content for the 20th anniversary!