Thankfully, we’re limiting ourselves to ranking just the films in this franchise, not the books, but still, establishing a hierarchy amongst these blockbuster titles is no easy feat. We’ve got no magic wand to help us, no time-turner to use if we get something wrong, but after sifting through the best of what each of these films has to offer, we’re confident in our choices.
Let’s see if you agree.
Here is our ranking of the Harry Potter series, from worst to best.
8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Half-Blood Prince benefits from its exciting bookends – the film begins and ends with action that feels relevant to the plot and entertaining as hell to watch – but it’s the long middle of this film that weighs it down enough to warrant this worst ranking. Despite establishing high stakes with the return of Voldemort, the attack on The Burrow, and later, the destruction of another Horcrux and the death of Dumbledore, the film languishes when the kids spend their time at school. With its dim lighting and gloomy tone, odd couplings, uncomfortable confessions, and awkward dinner parties, this movie feels more like a melodramatic rom-com than anything else. The only thing that saves it is its actors, who are so clearly comfortable in their characters and abilities they can sell anything, even a half-baked romance plot and a weirdly incestuous pairing.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second film in the franchise suffers from the dreaded sequel syndrome for most of its hours-long runtime. We’re familiar with these characters, but not knowledgeable enough about their world to escape scenes explaining what our heroes are doing, where they’re doing it, and why. There’s a bit of magic lost in returning to the classroom and the presence of Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) is distracting at best, irksome at worst. The film serves up a good mystery and tries to explore the darker nature of magic as Harry learns to communicate with snakes and eventually faces off against a sewer-dwelling Basilisk, but it lacks a real villain. With Voldemort physically absent, the film needed more than just a bumbling professor and a nightmarish monster to fight against to keep things interesting.
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Sorcerer’s Stone has the misfortune of being the first film in the Harry Potter series. Really, as a fan, you want this to be the worst of the franchise because it means each film following has only gotten better. But nostalgia is a powerful thing and origin stories are easy to love, which is why this film ranks as high as it does. The acting and cinematography are great here, as is the feeling this film gives off 00 an introduction to a secret magical world where time is spent marveling at how people can cast spells and fly on broomsticks is never not going to be entertaining. While other films have better storylines and more character growth, the original will always hold a special place in our hearts.
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Order of the Phoenix begins with a more ominous tone than any of the films on this list. After watching his friend die at the hands of a newly-revived Voldemort, Harry’s back in Little Whinging, slogging through an impossibly-slow summer while dealing with his very-real trauma. He’s attacked by Dementors, expelled from Hogwarts, and put on trial before he even steps foot back in Gryffindor’s common rooms. From there, we watch as Harry grapples with his disturbing connection to the Dark Lord. He suffers from nightmares and visions, made all the worse by the absence of Dumbledore and the arrival of a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, the only villain in this series who could be so intimidating in so much pink. While the pacing is a bit slow in places, the action at the school as Harry and his friends form a secret army and train in the Room of Requirement, and the mesmerizing battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic, more than make up for any pauses along the way.
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Adapting Rowling’s massive epic to the big screen was no easy task, but director Mike Newell was mostly up for the task. Not only did Newell have to introduce two additional schools of witchcraft and wizardry to the audience in just 2.5 hours, but he also had to take us through a magical competition, one that ended with the reveal of what would become Voldemort’s enduring visage. Up until the Goblet of Fire, the Dark Lord had existed on the perimeter, an invisible force fueling the action, but this film brought him front and center. The fact that it did so only after having our heroes fight underwater mer-people, angry dragons, and possessed hedge mazes is truly a triumph. So of the character development gets lost here, and most of the film feels less high-stakes because of the attention paid to the tournament, but overall, it’s one of the more fun Harry Potter movies to watch, especially if you’re yearning for more magic.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Alfonso Cuaron’s gloomy third entry in the franchise is, by most accounts, beloved by fans, and for good reason. The Oscar-winning director steeps this film — which marked a dark turning point in the book series as well — in his trademark style, utilizing long tracking shocks and peeling back the layers of these child-like characters to get to the grizzle of what terrifies and motivates them to engage in a war against evil. There are some fantastic introductions in this movie, from Remus Lupin and his lycanthropic affliction to Sirius Black, a supposed villain for much of the film until Harry learns the truth. Cuaron is able to pull from his teenage stars a vulnerability and a darkness that was lacking in the first two films, and he set the stage for the more adult content that would come in later works.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1
Some critics accuse the first of the two-part ending of the Harry Potter film series to be too meandering and too exposition-heavy to truly entertain. They’re wrong. The storytelling in this film is the strongest of any in the series as Yates pushes his core trio to carry the heavy burden of keeping fans invested in what’s seemingly a fruitless quest. We see Harry, Hermione, and Ron thrust into the real-world left to fend for themselves, to go on the run. Robbed of the comfort of Hogwarts and the familiar faces from home, they become wanted criminals, sacrificing everything to finish a mysterious mission that Dumbledore has tasked them with. And besides the character growth, the strains on their bonds of friendships, the digging into Dumbledore’s dark past, we’re also treated to some high-octane action sequences, like the battle at Malfoy Manor. It’s the quieter moments of this film though that make it truly stand out.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
The final installment of the Harry Potter franchise proved that there’s wisdom in not rushing your ending. After splitting the final book into two films, director David Yates had plenty of time (over two hours’ worth) to set up a showdown between our bespectacled hero and his nemesis. By giving himself time to sit with each of the main characters, to flit between battles in amongst the rubble of Hogwarts, and to pause in the most climactic of moments for his lead character to contemplate the trajectory of his life before he sacrifices it for the greater good, Yates managed to infuse what could’ve been just a series of CGI explosions and shocking deaths mashed together into something that felt more like an emotionally-charged farewell to a story that so many of us grew up with.
** You may have noticed we opted not to include the series’ prequels, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and The Crimes of Grindelwald. There are a few reasons for this, mainly because these films, while existing in the same universe, take place in drastically different eras, which means it’s difficult to compare the happenings in the original franchise with the action and plot of these movies. The characters are different, the situations they face are different, and the films have worked hard to establish a wholly separate vibe from their predecessors. Also, if we have to explain why Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald is the worst character in the HP universe, maybe this ranking just isn’t for you.