Meryl Streep in DoubtDOUBT

Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, writer/director John Patrick Shanley's period drama Doubt - set in 1964, and concerning a nun who suspects a priest of sexual misconduct with an altar boy - isn't much of a movie. Shanley's previous directorial effort was 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano, and it's a shame he wasn't able to get in more practice over the last 18 years; in an attempt to gussy up the visual blandness that accompanies most theatrical adaptations, Shanley opts for a series of high- and low-angle shots and symbolic thunder, lightning, and wind effects that oftentimes make Doubt resemble a satire of a low-budget horror flick. And it's still visually bland.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Order of the PhoenixHARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

I have no idea whether Alan Rickman, who portrays the impenetrable, vaguely sinister wizard Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, realized that the Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix movie would hit screens 10 days before the release of J.K. Rowling's seventh (and purportedly final) Potter book. But Rickman's portrayal seems so shrewdly tied in to readers' hunger for a new installment - and their passionate "Is Snape a villain or isn't he?" debate - that, with very little screen time to do it in, he practically emerges as the film's star.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of AzkabanHARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Anyone interested in the distinction between routine direction and inspired direction - anyone who has ever wondered what, exactly, it is that a director brings to a movie - should compare Chris Columbus' first two Harry Potter films with Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuaron; Columbus' films are the work of a by-the-numbers craftsman, and Cuaron's is the work of an artist. (Which isn't to say that everyone will prefer Cuaron's style; many people would rather dine on Big Macs than filet mignon.) Cuaron isn't quite able to overcome the series' built-in limitations - the familiarity of the storytelling arc, the "surprising" character reversals that aren't really much of a surprise, the fact that all three movies are too damned long - but for those viewers, like me, who've never been overly enamored of the Harry Potter film series, Azkaban is as fine an entertainment as you could hope for, a visually audacious work with moments of true magic, and it improves on Chris Columbus' vision tenfold.

Bonnie Wright and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Chamber of SecretsHARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

Although I didn't care for last year's Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone, I was more than willing to greet the new Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets with an open mind.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's StoneHARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER'S STONE

When I sheepishly tell friends that I haven't yet read any of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, their reaction is usually shock - "You're kidding!" - followed by euphoric insistence - "You've got to read them! You'll love them!" When I tell these same friends that I didn't much like the movie version of Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone, I get a different response, one that's a combination of mild disgust and serious condescension.