There is a scene in the movie Philadelphia (last scene here) where Tom Hanks character replies that what he loves most about the law is “that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.” And this is what I love most about courtroom dramas specially when they are based on true stories.
So here is the list of the Best Hollywood Courtroom Dramas in no particular order.
12 Angry Men
A jury of 12 men must decide the fate of an 18-year-old boy accused of fatally stabbing his father. But only one juror wants to take the time to deliberate the case on the basis of reasonable doubt while the others want to return a verdict of guilty and go home.
The movie was adapted from a teleplay of the same name by Reginald Rose. Almost the entire movie takes place in the jury room with the jurors arguing over whether the boy is guilty or not. This 1957 Black & White Classic is still engrossing and underscores the point that someone cannot be held guilty if there is reasonable doubt. Brilliant performances from everyone led by Henry Fonda. It was nominated for three Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. And this was the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Harper Lee, lawyer Atticus Finch defends an innocent black man against rape charges but ends up in a maelstrom of hate and prejudice. The movie is told from the point of view of Finch’s daughter Scout.
Its a very bold movie for its time – to talk about a innocent Black man accused of rape by a White woman. The plot and characters are supposedly based on the author Harper Lee’s own life, her father who himself was an attorney and on a similar rape case that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
Gregory Peck is excellent as Atticus Finch and deserved the Best Actor Oscar that he got. The film also won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction. It was nominated for a total of eight Oscars.
Judgment at Nuremberg
Spencer Tracy stars as American judge Dan Haywood, who’s chosen to guide a 1948 tribunal that’s trying Germans suspected of engaging in atrocities during World War II. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Haywood must obtain justice in a case with raised stakes and mixed emotions. Maximilian Schell co-stars in an Oscar-lauded performance as defense counsel for the Nazi prisoners.
The movie is based on the Judges’ Trial before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in 1947. It is in Black & White and quite long at over 3 hours and there are sudden zoom shots which look bad. And it does not quite get the Germans speaking in English cinematic liberty part and the the headphones part right. But what it does get right is way more. All the courtroom scenes are excellent. The movie raises the very important and still relevant question as to whether a judge who “does not make any laws should just carry out the laws of his country” even if they are unjust or should he stand for something – “justice, truth and the value of a single human being when it is the most difficult”. The movie also brings up the point that Hitler did do some good things like building the Autobahn and creating jobs for everyone and whether the trials are just “victor’s justice”. It also deals with the German people’s denial of any knowledge of those crimes and the defense that they could not stop Hitler even if they knew it.
The movie was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director and won Best Adapted Screenplay. Spencer Tracy is very good as Judge Haywood and was nominated for Best Actor. Burt Lancaster is very good as Ernst Janning and his courtroom speech is excellent. Richard Widmark is good as the Prosecutor. Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress are ok. Montgomery Clift is very good as the man who was sterilized and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor. But its Maximilian Schell who won the Oscar for Best Actor who totally steals the show. His last speech about the guilt of the Vatican, Churchill and the American businessmen is excellent.
A Few Good Men
A courtroom drama, the film revolves around the court martial of two U.S. Marines charged with the murder of a fellow Marine and the tribulations of their lawyer as he prepares a case to defend his clients.
Its an excellent courtroom drama/thriller which is completely engrossing and does not bore no matter how many times one has seen it. The climax is one of the best ever with the famous Jack Nicholson line “You can’t handle the truth”.
Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Bacon, Wolfgang Bodison and Kiefer Sutherland all give very good performances. Jack Nicholson is excellent and gives one of his career best performances. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Jack Nicholson and Best Film Editing.
After a young woman suffers a brutal rape in a bar one night, a prosecutor assists in bringing the perpetrators to justice, including the ones who encouraged and cheered on the attack. But it won’t be easy. Sarah has a shady past that could be used against her in court.
The movie is loosely based on the real-life gang rape of Cheryl Araujo that took place March 6, 1983, in Big Dan’s tavern, New Bedford, Massachusetts. She was a 21-year-old mother of two raped over the course of two hours while other patrons cheered. Link After the the March 1984 convictions of the men who attacked her she had to move to Florida because of hostility in her hometown. She died in a car crash two years later. Link
What’s remarkable about the movie is that the victim is not presented as goody goody. She drinks a lot, smokes pot and is “dressed provocatively” and flirts with the guy and “puts on a show” but the movie still sends the right message that it is still wrong to rape and that a “No” means a No. Jodie Foster is excellent in her Oscar winning role. Kelly McGillis is very good as the attorney. Bernie Coulson is good too as the witness.
Ghosts of Mississippi
Decades after two hung juries cleared white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith (Oscar nominee James Woods) in the 1963 shooting death of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) reopens the case to bring the man to justice. With support from Evers’s widow (Whoopi Goldberg), DeLaughter is determined to take down the murderer. Virginia Madsen co-stars in this drama based on the true 1994 trial.
Its another excellent courtroom drama based on a true story. “In 1994, thirty years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, Beckwith was again brought to trial based on new evidence concerning statements he made to others. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly excellent state of preservation as a result of embalming. Beckwith was convicted on February 5, 1994, after living as a free man for three decades after the murder. Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January of 2001.” Link
Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg give very good performances. James Woods is excellent in a negative role and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
In this heartfelt drama, Philadelphia attorney Andrew Beckett launches a wrongful termination suit against the hand that feeds him when his law firm finds out about his HIV-positive status — and his homosexuality — and fires him.
It was the first mainstream Hollywood movie which dealt with HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia. Its based on the true story of Geoffrey Bowers who was dismissed after his employer discovered he had AIDS. He died in 1987 before winning a discrimination case against his former employer Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm. Link The makers initially denied that the movie was based on him but had to settle when the family of Bowers filed a lawsuit. They acknowledged that the film “was inspired in part” by Bowers life. Link
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Best Actor for his excellent performance. Denzel Washington is also very good in a supporting role. Had posted scenes from it in Scene of the Week.
Playwright Arthur Miller’s parable of the 1950s anti-communist crusade (thinly veiled here as the Salem, Mass., witch trials of 1692) receives lush treatment in this Oscar-nominated film adaptation from director Nicholas Hytner. After being spurned by her married lover (Daniel Day-Lewis), young Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) stirs up a frenzy of hysteria and fear with accusations of witchcraft. J
The movie is a fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials and shows how mass hysteria can be whipped up by mere accusations of witchcraft. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as usual. Joan Allen is excellent and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Winona Ryder is excellent in a negative role.
When young attorney Rudy Baylor goes to work for a seedy ambulance chaser, he wants to help the parents of a terminally ill boy sue their insurance company. But to take on corporate America, Rudy and a scrappy paralegal must open their own law firm.
Another very good courtroom drama. Its about how Insurance companies deny legitimate claims. While they are victorious there is also an almost cynical ending that you don’t gain anything even after you win. Some may not like that.
Francis Ford Coppola’s direction is good for the most part. There are some scenes which seem implausible like Danny DeVito stealing from the information desk.
Matt Damon was good as the lawyer just out of Law School. Danny DeVito was good as his partner. Claire Danes was ok. Jon Voight was good as the attorney for the Insurance company.
Kramer vs. Kramer
Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is a career-driven yuppie — until he finds out his dissatisfied wife (Meryl Streep) is leaving him and their 6-year-old son. But just as Ted begins to love being a full-time parent, his wife reappears to reclaim the boy. Kramer. Kramer vs Kramer won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay.
The courtroom scenes involving the fight for the kid’s custody are excellent. It has excellent Performances by Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and the kid. Akele Hum Akele Tum was inspired/copied from Kramer vs Kramer right down to the dialogues. Had made a post on it. Link
When a blood-spattered altar boy is found running from a murder scene, his conviction seems certain. But when an arrogant defense attorney steps in, the issue of the boy’s possible guilt may be less important than winning the case.
Another very good courtroom drama/legal thriller. Keeps one engrossed right till the end. The final twist has become very common now but it was very good for its time.
Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney and Alfre Woodard all give very good performances but it is Edward Norton who totally steals the show in his Oscar nominated debut.
In this drama based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel, Nick Easter (John Cusack) gets himself on the jury of a landmark case against a gun manufacturer and, as the foreman, tries to influence the other jury members to vote a certain way. Meanwhile, Easter’s girlfriend, Marlee (Rachel Weisz), tries to swindle the attorneys (Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman) to pay millions of dollars to have the jury return a verdict friendly to their clients.
Another excellent Thriller/Courtroom Drama. John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz are all good while Gene Hackman is excellent.
Idealistic young attorney Adam Hall (Chris O’Donnell) takes on the death row clemency case of his unrepentant Klansman grandfather, Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman), in this big-screen adaptation of a John Grisham novel. The pair’s prickly meetings and Adam’s visits with his alcoholic Aunt Lee (Faye Dunaway) force Hall to confront his family’s dark past just as new evidence arises and suggests a government conspiracy in Cayhall’s case.
Has been a while since I saw this movie but had liked it a lot back then.
Chris O’Donnell, Faye Dunaway are good and Gene Hackman is excellent as usual.
My Cousin Vinny
When teenage buddies Billy (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are falsely accused of croaking a convenience-store clerk in a backwoods Southern town, Billy calls on his Noo Yawk cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci), a fast-talking personal injury lawyer who’s never tried a case. Vinny’s crass demeanor lands him in hot water with the judge, but the lippy Brooklyn barrister has a few tricks up his sleeve. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei plays his gal pal.
This is more a courtroom comedy than courtroom drama. The courtroom scenes are excellent the way the inexperienced and unconventional Vinny argues. Joe Pesci is excellent and so is Marisa Tomei who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Fred Gwynne is great as the old Southern Judge.
Prosecutor Rusty Sabich is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of a co-worker. But when his fingerprints turn up at the scene, he’s forced to admit he was having an affair with the victim and becomes the prime suspect.
Its very good and engrossing though a bit slow paced. The suspense of who the killer is very good and difficult to guess till the last moment. Even there the director Alan J. Pakula is brilliant and plays tricks with the identity of the killer. Harrison Ford is excellent. Performances by Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi are also very good.
The Lincoln Lawyer
Tasked with defending rich lothario Louis Roulet, who’s been charged with assault, lawyer Mick Haller finds himself and his family in danger when he deduces the truth behind this and former cases he’s worked on.
Its a very entertaining legal thriller. The scenes involving the mind games between Mathew and Ryan are very good.
Matthew McConaughey is very good as the lawyer. Ryan Phillippe is also very good in a negative role.
The People vs. Larry Flynt
Notorious pornographer Larry Flynt carries his free-speech campaign from lowly strip clubs to the U.S. Supreme Court in this Oscar-nominated biopic, which blends details of the publisher’s legal battles with scenes from his personal life.
The movie is based on Larry Flynt’s legal battles and specially the US Supreme Court Case – Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. The movie has Woody Harrelson doing various silly antics in court like showing up in a American flag as an adult diaper and wearing T-shirts with messages like “Fuck This Court.”
Woody Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his excellent performance as Larry Flynt. Edward Norton was very good as his lawyer. Courtney Love was also good as Althea. Miloš Forman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.Tags: 12 Angry MenA Few Good MenArticlesExclusiveGhosts of MississippiKramer vs KramerMy Cousin VinnyPhiladelphiaPresumed InnocentPrimal FearRunaway JuryThe AccusedThe ChamberThe CrucibleThe Lincoln LawyerThe People vs. Larry FlyntThe RainmakerTo Kill A Mockingbird