Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Tom Felton, Dawn French, Julie Christie.
Synopsis: It's Harry Potter's third year at Hogwarts, and once again, sinister forces seem to be arrayed against him. This year, Harry is threatened by the escaped murderer, Sirius Black. Black had a hand in the deaths of Harry's parents and it seems that Harry is next on the agenda. Meanwhile, things at Hogwarts progress as usual. There's a new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts (again!), our trio of young heroes is struggling through their Divination class with eccentric Professor Trelawny, and Professor Snape remains professor Snape. Hagrid has been promoted to faculty, teaching Care of Magical Beasts, and introduces Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and Draco Malfoy, to his displeasure), to a hippogriff named Buckbeak. But a sinister pall hangs over the school: a contingent of Dementors--the guards from Azkaban Prison--have taken up residence around the school to guard against Black. The Dementors seem to have it in for Harry, too, and as the semester wears on, it becomes clearer that things are not always what they seem...

Remake, Remodel: What a difference a year makes. The Harry Potter movies have a new director for the third outing. Alfonso Cuaron's presence behind the camera has worked something of a sea change on these movies. No longer are the makers of these films content to create a glorified picture-book rendering of the original books. This movie has a narrative drive and a cinematic pulse. In particular, Cuaron is more willing than Chris Columbus to pare away the material to suit his purposes. He is certainly more nimble with the language of film. The camera moves in this movie, and the film is generous with off-handed flourishes that make this far and away the best film as film of the series.

Parts of the new movie are marvels of cinematic invention. What we have in this film is a serious-minded artist being handed all the best cinematic toys money can buy, and boy does he play with them. And I'm not talking about special effects. Good special effects are a given in movies made on this scale these days. I'm talking about small things: the tone and composition of the scenes of Harry's home life, for example, or the persistent use of iris transitions, that put the film more in tune with silent film than with the films of the post-CGI revolution. The grounds of Hogwarts itself have been made to look more forbidding and more natural. Gone is the impeccably groomed greensward between the castle and Hagrid's hut, for example. The surrounding countryside now looks wild and magnificent. None of these things are hinted at in the book. Nor are some of the tell-tale phenomenon associated with the Dementors--the tendency for things to freeze when they are near is an invention of the movie, and an invention that instills an already frightening set of monsters with a further touch of strange.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have all grown as actors, and Cuaron has coaxed much improved performances from all three of them. The supporting cast continues to be a who's who of the cream of British acting aristocracy, though the film does want for more screen time for Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and immediately lays claim to the character with a wink and a nod. He's a more knowing, more robust Dumbledore, closer in spirit to the character one finds in the book than Harris was, though lacking the softer touches that Harris brought to the role. He's a worthy addition.

There are three things in the new movie that make me love it better than the previous two movies combined. The first and most obvious is Buckbeak the Hippogriff. This is one of the screen's great fantastic creations, a special effect that ceases to be a "special effect" at all and becomes part of the warp and weave of the film itself. This is the sort of thing that movie special effects promise, but so rarely deliver. The second thing is the way the movie marks time. Time is a central concern of the film's plot, and Cuaron has made the passage of time one of the film's dominant leit motifs, whether it is the recurring shots within the clocktower at Hogwarts (one in particular is telling and lovely and evocative) or the way Cuaron marks the passing of seasons. One shot in particular is miraculous: Hedwig, Harry's owl, takes wing in fall and flies into winter. The third, and most subtle, is the way the film brackets some of the novel's mysteries in elipses. We are not told, for instance, why Harry's patronus is a stag, nor is the origins of the Marauder's Map explained. The film elides its main theme--that parents live on through their children--all the while showing it manifest itself on screen. This is a strength that is peculiar to this movie. By refusing to explain some of the story's elements, the film retains a sense of wonder that transcends even the novel itself.