Action films and thrillers are all very good, but when it comes to watching two stars duke it out on screen, you can’t beat courtroom dramas. Over the years, the courtroom has exerted an inexorable pull on countless directors and screenwriters, and many an actor’s career has been crowned by a triumph with the gavel or on the stand. Here are ten of the best courtroom dramas in movie history.
10. Inherit The Wind
Spencer Tracy had already won his two Academy Awards by the time he starred in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 masterpiece, but for stiff competition that year from the likes of Laurence Olivier and Burt Lancaster, his scintillating performance here could easily have bagged a third. Tracy plays a lawyer tasked with defending a schoolteacher charged with teaching the theory of evolution in a sleepy Southern town. A thinly disguised retelling of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Tracy was never better than in the pivotal scene where he puts his Bible-thumping opponent (Fredric March) on the stand.
9. Erin Brockovich
This fictional account of the real-life PG&E groundwater contamination case that rocked California in the mid-1990s sees Julia Roberts play Brockovich, who instigated legal proceedings against the electricity company in 1993. Roberts won an Academy Award for her work in the role.
8. Roe vs. Wade
This 1989 TV film lands differently in a post-Roe vs. Wade America. The film stars Holly Hunter in an Emmy Award-winning turn as the woman whose unplanned pregnancy became the test case for the 1973 legal case about the right to abortion in the United States, and the always excellent Amy Madigan turns in a Golden Globe-winning performance as Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who brought the historic case to the Supreme Court.
7. The Mauritanian
From 2002 to 2016, Mohamedou Ould Slahi was held at Guantanamo Bay without charge. In this 2021 drama, Tahar Rahim does sterling work as Slahi, while Jodie Foster won a Golden Globe as Nancy Holland, one of Slahi’s lawyers who worked tirelessly to have him released.
6. Breaker Morant
Many say Australian cinema came of age with Peter Weir’s peerless 1981 World War One epic Gallipoli, but this 1980 Academy Award-nominated drama runs it close. Golden Globe winner Edward Woodward is brilliant as the eponymous Morant, an English soldier tried in a military court for executing prisoners of war, while future Gorillas in the Mist star Bryan Brown impresses as Morant’s co-accused.
5. Just Mercy
African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling memoir spawned this powerful 2019 drama, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, Brie Larson as Stevenson’s go-getting assistant, and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, who in real life spent years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
4. The Caine Mutiny
Humphrey Bogart won the last of his three Academy Award nominations for his work in this 1954 drama as Queeg, the disciplinarian Navy officer who becomes paranoid and delusional while in command of a World War Two-era destroyer. The film was a huge box office success, though not before the U.S. Navy, wary of a movie about a mutiny on board an American warship, had been assured its fictitious nature would be made clear.
3. A Few Good Men
Rob Reiner’s 1992 film may suffer a little from the oddly callow performances by Tom Cruise and Demi Moore as two lawyers who come to the defense of two Marine privates accused of murder. But the plot is tight. Jack Nicholson is satisfyingly repulsive as the colonel who justifies bullying his subordinates on the grounds of advancing the greater good, and Kevin Pollak is quietly excellent as the slightly older lawyer tasked with keeping Cruise and Moore on point.
Before the release of this 2016 drama, Mick Jackson was most well known for directing the 1992 Kevin Costner vehicle The Bodyguard, but Denial is the British director’s masterpiece. A true story of the 2000 Penguin Holocaust trial, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, an American history professor who was sued for libel in a British court by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Andrew Scott is coolly clinical as the hotshot solicitor Anthony Julius, and Tom Wilkinson has never been better as Richard Rampton, the real-life lawyer who sparred with Irving in court. Jackson’s restrained work, as well as the decision to include only dialog taken from the actual transcripts for the courtroom scenes, combine to create a stunning assertion of the power of truth over lies.
1. To Kill A Mockingbird
This masterful adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about the trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman in a segregationist Southern town retains all of its rhetorical power over 60 years after its release. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his work as Atticus Finch, the lawyer for the defense, while Brock Peters is the epitome of dignity as the tragic defendant Tom Robinson.
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