The 15 Best Courtroom Drama Movies - GODYEARS

The 15 Best Courtroom Drama Movies

September 18, 2016

Less than 72 hours after its release and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's Pink is already on its way to being heralded as one of the best courtroom based movies that Bollywood has ever made in its 103 year old history. In Pink, you have a movie that forces you to introspect, using the courtroom to show society a mirror of its own prejudices.

Which is a good thing because we have been sorely lacking in that department, even if you include the likes of the testosterony Damini or a few melodrama lathered ones from the 80s. (A big part of that is probably because a good courtroom drama requires actual writing skill from a knowledgeable mind as opposed to a typical Bollywood superstar worshipper but that is a discussion left for another day.)

Now that the 'courtroom based movie' bug has bitten you and you think you would enjoy it over the regular 'good guy thrashes a dozen goons' fare, are you in the mood to see some more? Here, in my opinion, are some of the best that Hollywood has provided us over the years.

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A Few Good Men

When two marines are accused of murdering one of their own, a young team of lawyers are sent in to take on their case. Fighting the rigid army laws and codes of honour, they end up staking their reputation as they try to uncover what happened on the night of the murder.
My two cents: Arguably one of the best courtroom dramas of all time and one of Rob Reiner's best movies as a director. A magnificent star cast at their brilliant best - Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak & in one of the most memorable cameos of all time, Jack Nicholson. The tension holds till the very end with minimal digression in between.

Runaway Jury

Based on a John Grisham novel, when a widow sues the company that made the guns used by someone to kill her husband, she faces horrible odds. What makes her odds worse is that she does not know that the powerful gun lobby has also hired a smarmy jury consultant (a delectably evil Gene Hackman) & his hi-tech team to do their thing and manipulate the jury in their favour. But things start to go wrong as one of the selected young jurors (John Cusack) starts manipulating things from within as well.
My two cents: This is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again. A tight script, frequent surprises and an underlying mystery keeps you guessing. 

Philadelphia

When a lawyer is terminated from his firm because he is found to have HIV, he struggles both against the prejudices and the system to prove he did nothing wrong.
My two cents: Tom Hanks would win one of his many Oscars for this role of a homosexual who is ostracized after it is found that he has developed AIDS. Denzel Washington is equally brilliant as the lawyer - uneasy with his client - who decides to take his case. This was one of the first films to deal with the topic of HIV.


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A Time to Kill

John Grisham again. What would you do if your ten year old girl was picked up off the road, raped, beaten up and hung (unsuccessfully) and you found out that the culprits would most likely be freed by the law? When the African American impoverished father kills the men who raped his girl, he sets off a racially charged, widely publicized trial with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan gathering in his town to ensure he does not win.
My two cents: I think this is one of John Grisham's most powerful novels. The theme of racism set in Mississippi (where else) will make your blood boil as you watch the injustice within the system but then, it is 2016 and we are still watching it happen - whether to African Americans in USA or minorities elsewhere. Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as the white lawyer taking sides with the 'black guy' at great personal risk. But if you ever doubted his acting credentials watching him today as Nick Fury in the Marvel Movies, please do watch this for Samuel L Jackson as the heartbroken father facing the death penalty for killing his daughter's rapists. 
Matthew McConaughey also has one of the most heartbreaking closing speeches in a movie courtroom drama.

Kramer vs Kramer

Based on the Avery Corman novel, Kramer vs Kramer (Dustin Hoffman & Meryl Streep here) deals with the topic of divorce and child custody, focusing on the mudslinging and emotional upheavals that it puts an estranged couple through.
My two cents: Unlike the other movies in this list that showcase the lawyers, this is about the two people undergoing the divorce and how a bitter divorce forces them to re-evaluate what they want in life. In 1980, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor & Actress so you know its worth a watch.

The Accused

A woman who went into a bar is gang raped there even as the other patrons laugh and cheer the rapists. After the rapists get a reduced sentence with no trial, a second incident causes the assistant district attorney (ADA) to finally stand up for the victim and go on to prosecute the men at the bar who cheered as the crime occurred.
My two cents: Jodie Foster would win the Oscar for Best Actress for this role. And while it is a good movie, I added this here for other reasons:
  • It is based on a real case - the Big Dan rape - which was notorious for the tactic of blaming the victim in a rape case by questioning her morals. (India, sound familiar?)
  • Kelly McGillis (Top Gun) took on the role of ADA because tragically she too had been a victim of a home invasion and sexual assault.


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To Kill a Mockingbird

Based on the Harper Lee Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the course of a rape trial in a highly charged racially motivated case is seen through the eyes of a young girl whose father does his best to free an innocent black man in the unforgiving '60s.
My two cents: Can you make a courtroom drama list without this one? Probably still the Gold standard of courtroom dramas. Culturally influential both as a novel and as a movie, this movie went on to win 3 Oscars including Best Actor for Gregory Peck. 

The Lincoln Lawyer

A defence attorney is hired to defend a rich playboy accused of violently beating up a prostitute. As he digs deeper into the case, he finds similarities between this case and a case he had done earlier and realizes he has made a terrible mistake.
My two cents: Yay, it is Matthew McConaughey again! And at his best too. Based on the Micheal Connelly series of novels, this movie has a few good twists in the tale. 

Fracture

Shooting his wife and immediately confessing to the officer at the scene of the crime would make for an open-and-shut case. And yet the rich engineer Mr Crawford does not seem too purturbed, even choosing to represent himself in the courtroom. The deputy district attorney is about to find out why.
My two cents: Anthony Hopkins & Ryan Gosling play out a wonderful cat-and-mouse game here with Hopkins really enjoying himself in a role that is but a few shades lighter than his iconic Hannibal Lecter.

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Primal Fear

A high profile lawyer who loves the spotlight takes on the case of a stuttering young altar boy, accused of killing a very influential Archbishop.
My two cents: It is twenty years since I read the book this is based on and I can tell you the last line even today. That is how big of an impact it had as far as twists go. And Edward Norton in his debut role is outstanding as the young altar boy accused of murdering the priest. Richard Gere too is perfectly cast here as the 'always winning' lawyer stuck with the un-winnable case and finding out there is a lot more to it than he was first informed.


Presumed Innocent

Based on the Scott Turow novel, a prosecutor (Harrison Ford) is put in charge of the murder of his ex-lover and colleague. But he soon realizes that all the evidence points directly back to him.
My two cents: Highly underrated, this is a brilliant adaptation with some wonderful twists.

Jagged Edge

Glenn Close plays a high profile lawyer who takes on the case of a man accused of murdering his socialite wife. Business meets pleasure though as she starts to engage in an affair with her client, even as she tries to prove his innocence.
My two cents: A really good thriller. Of course, Bollywood knows this by the more famous musical numbers of their version ( Kasoor )

In the Name of the Father

Based on the autobiography of Gerry Conlon, the story follows 4 people wrongly imprisoned following a bombing in a pub that killed British soldiers.
My two cents: Daniel Day-Lewis is a director's actor. He lives the role. For this one based on the real life story of the falsely accused and imprisoned Guildford Four, he lost 50 pounds and spent 3 consecutive days in prison. This is a movie that is infuriating because it is real and you feel the helplessness of watching the innocent suffer.

Erin Brockovich

A young woman working in a legal firm finds out that a gas and electric company has been seriously contaminating a town with its waste products. But what can one woman do against a corporate giant?
My two cents: Based on a real story, Julia Roberts (who won a Golden Globe for this) excels here, giving up her usual 'goody two shoes' roles for a profanity rich one as she does everything possible to help the people in the town.


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My Cousin Vinny

The movie focuses on the case of two young men standing trial for a murder they did not commit and the 'less than competent' lawyer in charge of saving them... their Cousin Vinny.
My two cents: After all the serious movies above, sit back and have a laugh with this one. Joe Pesci & Marisa Tomei are hilarious as the Italian American duo stuck in a very conservative Southern part of America as they try to win the case.


So what do you think? How many of these have you seen and what did you think of them? 
Any others you would like added to the list?

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25 comments

  1. Roshan! The amount of hardwork you've done writing this post is commendable. I didn't know about the Hollywood court dramas but I lapped John Grisham's books. He is a fantastic story teller. I just can't get over PINK in my head and that's true, it came two decades after Damini which tells us a lot about content, barring Kasoor a decent fare. I also like Anil Kapoor in Meri Jung, though not an out and out court drama.

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    1. Thanks :) Yes, I admit it did take up quite some time.
      Early John Grisham is when he was at his best as a novelist...
      And yes, it is disheartening that we dont have more strong storylines in our movies.. I mean, we can't even name 5 good law movies after a 100 years!

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  2. I've seen a few of these - To Kill A Mockingbird, Kramer vs Kramer, A Few Good Men, Erin Brockovich. All classic movies. Will have to look up the others.

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    1. Please do... each offers a lot of entertainment or something thought provoking at the very least.

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  3. That's a fab list. I've seen just a few of those, have read some others. But this I need to save up and watch each one at leisure.

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    1. Please do... some still come in our cable channels, including Runaway Jury and Philadelphia.

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  4. I loved the dialogues, they all sound so gripping. Except for Erin Brockovich, I haven't watched any other movie in the list. Time to glue myself to the TV and couch :)

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    1. Please do :) Trust me, you would love most on this list.

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  5. I have seen To Kill a Mockingbird (read the book, too-fantastic), Erin Brockovich, My Cousin Vinnie,The Lincoln Lawyer. May I add Twelve Angry Men (more of a jury drama, but I think that counts) and Inherit the Wind?

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    1. Thanks... I haven't seen either of the two you mentioned but thats the beauty of such lists... I get something new too from your recommendations. :)

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  6. I was wondering why you hadn't included, 'My cousin Vinny' till I reached the end of the post! That is a perfect list of courtroom dramas, some of which I have seen and some of which I have just heard about. Guess now those 'some' are on the to be watched films!
    Thank you so much, Rosan!

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    1. Haha.. I love My Cousin Vinny. You can rewatch quite a few times without ever getting bored :)

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  7. Thanks Roshan for this list. I just love courtroom dramas. Haven't seen some of the above so just added them to my list of to watch movies. Have you watched The Rainmaker and The Judge, both are too good. Thanks again !!!

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    1. I haven't watched The Judge so will get on that. And as for The RainMaker, I had even written my bit for it in this list and then deleted it to trim the list down to a round figure. :)

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  8. Thanks Roshan for this list. I just love courtroom dramas. Haven't seen some of the above so just added them to my list of to watch movies. Have you watched The Rainmaker and The Judge, both are too good. Thanks again !!!

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  9. Bravo, young man..bravo. Great list of movies. I don't think I've seen Fracture, but the rest yes.

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    1. Do give Fracture a chance if you see it playing on TV. It's a very smart thriller

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  10. There is a whole list of John Grisham books there. I have not seen all his movies but books I have savoured. And you know they are better than the books. My cousin Vinny is something I will like to see based on your description.

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    1. I personally find the movie 'A time to Kill' compulsory watching for America, even today. The way it deals with prejudice and racism is so damn strong. It's scary that we have reached back to that Era today.

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  11. Loved this entire list of courtroom dramas- you seem to have listed them all. Very powerful movies with very large messages. Personally love Philadelphia & A few good men. I cant believe you included My cousin Vinny - Devito is brilliant in this one and the movie made for some very good laughs.

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    1. Thanks... and yes, I was always gonna include My Cosuin Vinny :) I agree it is different from the others in this list but its still a courtroom drama and a hilarious one at that! :)

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  12. This is fantastic list and I love it,
    I working in a law office (http://www.scmclaw.com) and I will recommend to all of my friend in the office to look at this list.

    Thanks a lot,

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  13. Such a wonderful list.. i haven't watched any of these.. i have already noted down the movies to watch.. soon.. soon.. can't wait..

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    1. Start... These are some really good movies which won't keep u bored

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