Despite the ridiculous amounts of money each Harry Potter film has earned, I have a hard time engaging in the universe developed by the respectable line-up of fill-in filmmakers who handled one or more outings at a time. Rowling’s books do a much better job in instilling one in that cohesive, deep-seated vision than these certainly capable craftsmen’s takes. Pennsylvania-born Chris Columbus, who helmed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, arguably had the toughest task in establishing the HP world onscreen before Rowling’s tale was even completed. He was the right pick for adapting the front-end of the series, when it was at its most docile and kid-friendly. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón stepped in for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Englishman Mike Newell took on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (which boasted an excellent cameo from Jarvis Cocker…and the rest was a colossal bore). David Yates, an unknown at the time to the many Americans who would soon make him rich, rounded out the series’ final installments, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the newly released Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the upcoming two-part finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Here’s our top six of sassier affairs with which this filmmaking quartet has individually dirties his hands. Granted, David Yates didn’t have much time to prove himself before HP aside from the first few episodes of State of Play and our pick, The Girl in the Café, but it’s still more worthwhile to check out this stuff than the arid, muddled weight of the HP epics.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Blood on the camera lens, surprising deaths and radiating tautness propel this dystopian science fiction thriller with Clive Owen. The highlight is Michael Caine in John Lennon-style neo-hippie mode as a retired cartoonist.
Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)
The gangster subgenre inducted a new qualified member with this sharp, well-written tale of an FBI agent (Johnny Depp, 12 years before portraying John Dillinger) who goes undercover to infiltrate a Florida-based crime family. Al Pacino, who plays a low-level hit man, refrained from sleepwalking through this role. He waited until cinematic disasters 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill came along to do that.
Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
This film isn’t just about sex, I promise. But the film’s central trio makes a convincing case for it at least until the third act. The coming-of-age story about two teenagers who take a road trip with a woman in her twenties takes some unforeseen and strange turns.
Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)
Some would say the golden age of cinema actually ended when John Hughes lost touch with the times - somewhere in the early '90s. That happened after Hughes and Columbus teamed up for the first two gleefully inane but thoroughly entertaining Home Alone films. Buzz’s girlfriend… Woof.
Mrs. Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993)
Another Columbus winner whose staying power on VHS shelves everywhere surpassed its value as a film but is better than those damn Harry Potter movies.
The Girl in the Café (David Yates, 2005)
It was frequently played on HBO a few years back. You can’t argue with Bill Nighy and that cunning wit.
Honorable mention: Chris Columbus’ screenplay for The Goonies (1985)