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The 15 best courtroom movies of all time

Cinema has produced plenty of noteworthy war movies, but some of the most compelling battles in film have nothing to do with battlefields. Under the guidance of the right cast and crew, there’s little more compelling or suspenseful than a great courtroom drama. Rather than bullets and mortars, lawyers legal dramas make war with facts, intellect, and cutting questions. Often the stakes are life and death just as they are on true fields of war, except usually, it’s not the lawyers but their clients who have everything on the line.

The conflict in every courtroom drama is a battle for truth. Whether it’s a story about social justice, unveiled conspiracies, or the innocent framed to look guilty, every movie featuring courtroom clashes is about not only discovering the truth, but how to deliver that truth in a way that cuts through all prejudice and doubt. Here are the best examples of these legal battles you’re likely to find on film.

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Al Pacino in And Justice for All

And Justice for All (1976)

Defense attorney Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) delivers one of the most memorable courtroom speeches on film toward the end of And Justice for All. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably watched a parody of Kirkland flailing around the courtroom and yelling “You’re out of order! You’re out of order!” at the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and just about everyone in the place. His breakdown comes after Kirkland watches one innocent client after another get devoured by corruption, only to find himself defending a man he knows to be guilty — a judge accused of rape — who is sure to be acquitted. The explosive scene featuring Kirkland’s opening statement, and the film itself, is a potent indictment of a legal system valuing its merciless competition over its supposed search for justice.

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Stars: Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe
Director: Norman Jewison
Rating: R
Runtime: 119 minutes

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Just Mercy (2019)

One crime that deserves serious investigation is how the 2019 legal drama Just Mercy didn’t receive so much as a single Oscar nomination the year it came out. Starring Michael B. Jordan as attorney Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy tells the story of Stevenson’s fight to overturn the wrongful conviction of death row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Soon after Stevenson takes McMillian’s case, it’s clear the evidence against him is flimsy. In spite of bureaucratic stonewalls and intimidation, the lawyer fights to prove his client’s conviction has more to do with convenience and the color of his skin than any “facts.” Jordan and Brie Larson — playing Steven’s legal partner Eva Ansley — deliver wonderful performances, while Foxx’s uncharacteristically quiet and understated portrayal of McMillian proves to be one of the best roles of his career.

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 137 minutes

Edward Norton and Richard Gere in Primal Fear

Primal Fear (1996)

Anyone paying attention to Primal Fear upon its release had to know that they were witnessing only the very beginning of Edward Norton’s movie career. In his film debut, Norton plays Aaron, a seemingly gentle young man accused of murdering an archbishop. The influential defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) thinks he has a textbook insanity defense when a splintered personality emerges from Aaron and takes responsibility for the killing. Things prove more complicated, of course, and Vail ends up in a rare wrestling match between his ambition and a long-dormant conscience. While Gere, Laura Linney, and Andre Braugher deliver great performances, it’s Norton who’s the real draw here. His twin performances of Aaron and Roy are mesmerizing, making it abundantly clear why Norton was later tapped to play characters who were, at turns, both meek and savage in projects like Fight Club and American History X.

Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Stars: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson in In the Name of the Father

In the Name of the Father (1993)

While there are a lot of movies about innocent people accused of crimes they didn’t commit, few come as close to showing the true cost of such injustice as In the Name of the Father. The film tells the true story of the Guildford Four — three men and one woman accused and wrongly convicted of political bombings at the behest of the IRA. While we get our time in the courtroom, the film focuses mostly on the abuse the Four receive at the hands of police, and the years Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his father, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), lose to imprisonment. Heartbreaking and fiery, In the Name of the Father is an essential courtroom classic.

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson, Pete Postlethwaite
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: R
Runtime: 133 minutes

Kevin Costner in JFK

JFK (1991)

Released at the peak of director Oliver Stone’s career, JFK adapts the tale of the single criminal case brought to court involving the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kevin Costner stars as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who becomes increasingly obsessed with the facts surrounding the assassination and targets the Louisiana businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Those who have grown weary of conspiracy theories be warned — JFK revolves around the theory that it was not Lee Harvey Oswald who shot and killed Kennedy. But if you put aside your prejudice of such speculation, JFK can still be appreciated as a brilliantly directed, fast-paced film with a compelling argument that acts as both legal drama and political thriller. Not to mention JFK boasts an incredible ensemble cast that includes Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy.

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Stars: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones
Director: Oliver Stone
Rating: R
Runtime: 189 minutes

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer is not only one of the best legal dramas you’re likely to find, but it’s also one that’s rooted in the real world. There are no sensational stories about grisly murders or innocent people accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Instead, Kramer vs. Kramer gives us the sadly familiar story of a marriage’s dissolution and the heartbreaking custody battle that follows. After Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves her husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman), he is forced to step up and take the lead role in parenting their son Billy (Justin Henry), a transition that eventually strengthens their bond. Over a year later Joanna returns, seeking custody of Billy and sparking an ugly court battle. After watching Kramer vs. Kramer and drying your tears, you’ll wonder why there aren’t more movies about this all-too-frequent occurrence.

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep
Director: Robert Benton
Rating: PG
Runtime: 105 minutes

Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Among other age-old legal arguments that come up in My Cousin Vinny are the definition of “yutes,” the correct automotive ignition timings, and the science of cooking grits. These and other brilliantly comedic moments surface in the courtroom when rookie lawyer Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancee, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), hurry from New York to small-town in Alabama to defend his cousin and friend who have been accused of murdering a store clerk. Still green and having taken three attempts to pass the law bar, Vinny winds up angering the stickler Judge Haller (Fred Gwyne) so much during his first day in court that the lawyer is thrown in jail for contempt. More than anything, My Cousin Vinny is a lighthearted and hilarious look at the culture clash between the urban North and the rural South.

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Stars: Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

Paul Newman in The Verdict

The Verdict (1982)

The Verdict is as much — if not more — about the redemption of its hero, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), as it is about the justice he seeks. At the beginning of the film we find Frank, who has descended into alcoholism with his career on the brink, having been framed for jury tampering years before. A friend brings him a medical malpractice case as a favor — one with defendants eager to settle — but Frank surprises himself and everyone else when he rebuffs the defendants’ overtures and takes the case to trial. In spite of the pressure from colleagues, judges, and even his own clients, Frank takes the case to the bitter end and finds salvation for himself in the process.

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Stars: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

First hitting theaters in 1959, Anatomy of a Murder is like a blueprint for how to make a great trial film. In a bit of a twist on the genre, we know the defendant — Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) — is responsible for the killing of which he’s accused. Manion murders Barney Quill for, he claims, the rape of his wife. James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, the defense attorney who argues that Manion wasn’t in control of his actions. Anatomy of Murder clocks in at more than two and a half hours long, but hardly feels like it. The battles of intellect waged between witnesses and lawyers like Biegler and prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) keep this spellbinding drama moving at a good clip.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara
Director: Otto Preminger
Rating: NR
Runtime: 161 minutes

A shot from Witness for the Prosecution

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

In what’s largely hailed as her greatest film performance, Marlene Dietrich stars in the classic Witness for the Prosecution as Christine, the wife of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a man accused of murdering an elderly widow. As the barrister defending Leonard, the ailing Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) comes to suspect Christine is the real culprit, and his suspicions culminate in an enraged cross-examination that convinces everyone involved of Leonard’s innocence. In short order, however, we learn there’s a lot more going on with Christine than anyone suspects. With classic twists and turns, Witness for the Prosecution is a compelling courtroom drama and mystery adapted from the work of Agatha Christie.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton
Director: Billy Wilder
Rating: NR
Runtime: 116 minutes

Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men (1992)

Two U.S. Marines go too far and end up unintentionally killing one of their brother soldiers. When Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) takes the case, no one expects anything more than the sweetest plea deal he can find. Urged in part by the idealistic JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), by the memory of his celebrated father, and finally, by his own conscience, Kaffee brings the case to trial. As he investigates the murder, he runs afoul the influential Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and what appears to be a fanatic military subculture. Everything builds to Kaffee’s explosive confrontation with Jessup on the stand, when Nicholson delivers the famous line “You can’t handle the truth!” While Cruise and Nicholson get the lion’s share of love for their great performances in the film, A Few Good Men is served immensely by an ensemble cast including Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore
Director: Rob Reiner
Rating: R
Runtime: 138 minutes

Shot from Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgment at Nuremberg doesn’t have characters so much as it has ideas, but those ideas are desperately important ones that still find relevance today. Based on the so-called Judges’ Trial in which former Nazi judges were tried for crimes against humanity, the film unfolds as a fictionalized version of the historic event. Some of the film’s most important questions come from the Germans’ defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell), who points the finger at just about everyone else, but at the same time asks about the responsibilities of the same world powers running the trial. While Judgment at Nuremberg debuted in 1961, it deals with the issue of the Holocaust with more maturity and intelligence than many of the films that followed.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark
Director: Stanley Kramer
Rating: NR
Runtime: 179 minutes

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philapdelphia

Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia is not only one of the best courtroom dramas put to film, but certainly one of the most important popular films about AIDS and the horrible stigma its victims endured in the ’80s and ’90s. Having come up in Hollywood largely playing comic roles, Tom Hanks cemented his reputation as a dramatic actor in the role of Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer fired from his law firm when it’s discovered he has AIDS. Ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is Beckett’s last chance at getting representation, and even Miller turns him away at first. Taking the case forces Miller to confront his own homophobia — an inner struggle that ultimately helps him fight the discriminatory law firm. Philadelphia is emotionally and socially potent, and still relevant as an example of what good can come of us acknowledging and confronting the hatred within us.

Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Stars: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 125 minutes

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men (1957)

You could argue 12 Angry Men isn’t a courtroom drama, but a jury room drama. All but three minutes of the film take place in the jury room with — as the title promises — 12 angry men arguing over the fate of an 18-year-old accused of murdering his father. At first, to everyone but the juror played by Henry Fonda, it’s an open and shut case. But as the volume increases and the arguments unfold, one-by-one Fonda’s fellow jurors become convinced things aren’t as clear as they seemed at first. While it’s the oldest film on this list, ironically you could argue it’s the most relevant, considering it gives us a narrow slice of a demographic that’s forced to pause, step back, and find a way to look at things in a different light.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: NR
Runtime: 96 minutes

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