My wife is working up a guest post on Pottermore, the online Harry Potter experience, which got me thinking about the films again, which I was consistently a fan of. The pressure on the filmmakers to "get it right" (whatever that means) was tremendous, knowing that every change to the source material would be scrutinized and obsessed over to no end, and if they blew it, they stood the chance of ruining the lives of two dozen children (the actors) for no good reason. It's hard to make even one good movie, but in the end, the filmmakers behind this franchise made 7 (or 8, depending on how you count) good ones over 10 years. I cannot think of a more ambitious and successfully executed cinematic undertaking in the history of the medium. Really.
That said, I have now ranked the movies. This list is correct. If you say otherwise, prepare yourself for a wizard duel. (FYI - Spoilers abound below)
I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid on this one, and I will not apologize for it. Look, Children of Men is great, but you can almost literally see Alfonso Cuaron poking his head out of the corner of every single frame of Prisoner of Azkaban saying "Look! I directed that! See?!?" The talking shrunken head on the Knight Bus is ridiculous, the repeated through-the-mirror shots are pointless, and the clock pendulum that swings through the main entrance of Hogwarts (because there's going to be a twist about time travel!) is embarrassing, heavy-handed symbolism of the worst kind.
The first film in the series presented the biggest risk, and the studio made a conservative choice in going with Chris Columbus in the director's chair. A lot of people criticized the decision, thinking the adaptation was too "safe." Whatever. This film delivered quality entertainment and established enough goodwill for the filmmakers that they had earned the audience's trust by the time they had to make riskier decisions later in the franchise, from choosing directors to cutting major story elements.
There are a number of wonderful moments in this movie, from the introduction of Slughorn to Ron's victorious homecoming to the Gryffindor common room after winning the Quidditch match, but on the whole, the story in this film is a very slow burn to its this-changes-everything climax.
This movie is too long (the longest of the series), and the slow pace (the actors take forever to react and respond, which is a directorial issue) is a problem, but it introduces Dobby, one of the best characters in the series, and Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart is pure fun. But for the life of me, I can never figure out why the whole school is so excited to get Hagrid back at the end. Oh well.
My only explanation for this film having this lowest critical rating of the franchise is that -- owing to the source material -- it's the most grim and oppressive entry in the series. But this film marks the point where it could be argued the filmmakers became better stewards of the franchise than J.K. Rowling, herself. Harry is so angry and petulant in the book that it was hard for me to take him in large doses, but his anger and confusion seem to be handled far more deftly in the movie. For the first time I found myself enjoying the movie adaptation more than the Harry Potter book it was based on. The death of Sirius is handled with far more grace and plays much more meaningfully onscreen than on the page due to a couple of important choices the filmmakers made, and the Dumbledore/Voldemort battle in the Ministry is just freakin' cool.
There are two important deaths in this film, and the ways in which they're handled in my mind utterly eclipse the source material. By this point in the books, JK Rowling could see the finish line, and (has admitted that) she started hating some of the characters, so in the books, Hedwig's and Dobby's deaths seemed spiteful and cavalier. Onscreen, they are made meaningful because they are not simply deaths, but sacrifices, which Harry will have to make of himself in the last film. That's just good writing. And the end of the film justifies splitting the final book in two, giving the franchise its end-of-Empire-Strikes-Back-oh-my-God-everyone-is-screwed moment.
This is probably my favorite book in the series, and marked the first time when Steve Kloves had to cut more than he kept in an effort to get the thing onscreen. Even on my first viewing, I thought his choices were elegant and inspired. Also, Mike Newell's direction of the actors in the Yule Ball sequence and Harry's return from the graveyard brought out arguably the best performances of the series, especially from Daniel Radcliffe, until the final film.
By any standard I can think of, this is the clear crowning achievement of the franchise, and was utterly robbed by the old men running the AMPAS. It packs the greatest emotional wallop of the franchise, and gives the struggle between Harry and Voldemort the pay-off it (and the audience) deserved, and which J.K. Rowling didn't give us in the dashed-off finale of the 7th book. Snape's death makes my wife sob, sob, sob, and for some reason it always manages to get an eyelash or big speck of dirt or something in my eye, too. Must be that.