This list of 10 best courtroom movies is based on purely subjective criteria, as follows:
- movies worth watching again and again
- movies that were formative in my legal career
- movies that come from books I love
There will be folks who take issue with the list, its order, and the movies that didn't make it on the list, but . . . my list.
In addition to the great leading actors, the supporting casts in these flicks are fabulous. If you haven't seen one or more of these movies (one or two might be unknown to you), I recommend that you check them out.
Shall we begin?
10. And Justice for All
"You're out of order! This whole damn place is out of order!"
Al Pacino. He's good at being angry.
This movie is on my best courtroom movies list because it was shot in Baltimore. The scene below takes place in the Baltimore City Circuit Court Ceremonial Courtroom. The whole building is magnificent. This courthouse is where I tried some of my first cases as a lawyer. This is where I'll be a member of a jury pool next month.
And Justice for All is available on Amazon.
9. Breaker Morant
"Live everyday as if it were your last. One day you are sure to be right."
Edward Woodward as Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant -- horseman, soldier and poet.
The rules of war don't often play well in a courtroom. The idea that there even are rules of war is confounding. War itself is a crime. This film captures the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of colonialism. It makes a lasting impression.
Breaker Morant is available on Amazon.
8. Inherit the Wind
"This community is an insult to the world!"
Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond. I'm not sure who could have played this role better.
Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone is a formative book in my personal philosophy. In addition to introducing me to the idea that a case can be lost at trial but won in the court of public opinion, this story about the Scopes trial has a Baltimore connection. H.L. Mencken who covered the trial, was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
The character based on Mencken was played by Gene Kelly, a bit miscast.
Inherit the Wind is available on Amazon.
7. Witness for the Prosecution
"The question is, were you lying then or are you lying now?"
Marlena Dietrich and Charles Laughton.
I have only had the chance to use that question on cross-examination a few times in my career. But when the opportunity presented itself, the effect was powerful even if my delivery was not quite like that of Sir Wilfrid.
Witness for the Prosecution is available on Amazon.
6. A Few Good Men
"You can't handle the truth!"
Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore
I almost did not include this film because I don't like the way the female lawyer is portrayed. But she's the only female lawyer depicted on this list of best courtroom movies. Plus, the line from Colonel Nathan Jessup is iconic in a courtroom setting.
A Few Good Men is available on Amazon.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
"In our courts, all men are created equal."
Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch.
A list of best courtroom movies is not complete without an appearance by Atticus Finch. The line where he tells Jem that he can kill all the blue jays that he wants, but that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird is the only reference to God made by Atticus. It wasn't until I reread the book as an adult that I realized Atticus has a belief in God and is not a pure humanist.
To Kill a Mocking Bird is available on Amazon.
4. Legally Blonde
Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson.
This is a funny, ridiculous movie and I love it. I know I'm going to hear from folks about ranking it higher than To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think it's a classic. What we have to appreciate about Elle Woods is that everyone's personal experiences and interests inform their perspectives. Perspectives help you try a case, and judge it.
Legally Blonde is available on Amazon.
3. 12 Angry Men
"This isn't a game."
Henry Fonda and the art of persuasion.
This film is a study in the arduous task of convincing someone to question their beliefs, to open their minds, especially when life and liberty are on the line. We could use a few more people like Juror #8 in our lives today.
12 Angry Men is available on Amazon.
2. Anatomy of a Murder
"Try to remember how crazy you were."
Jimmy Stewart as a lawyer of questionable ethics.
This is a movie many people do not know. I first watched it as part of an ethics seminar in law school. Is it a lawyer's job to apply the facts to the law and counsel the client? Or is it a lawyer's job to tell the client the law and let the client design the facts?
Anatomy of a Murder is available on Amazon.
1. My Cousin Vinny
"It's a trick question!"
Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci, what a team.
This is the all time perfect courtroom movie. I never get tired of watching it. There are many good scenes to choose from, but this one floats to the top every time. A witness who can handle herself on the stand -- priceless.
My Cousin Vinny is available on Amazon.
Unfortunately, copyright doesn't make for great cinema, but that's my list of best courtroom movies. It may change as I find time to watch the courtroom movies that I haven't seen yet, like Philadelphia. Because Denzel, right?
What courtroom movies, or even courtroom scenes from movies, would you put on a best courtroom movies list? I'm sure I've missed many worthy films. Drop the title in the comments for me, will you?
Good list, Kathryn… I also liked The Verdict with Paul Newman.
Ha ha. When I read your post at 4am, I immediately thought of Miracle on 34th Street. The courtroom scene is one of my favorites. But I was tired so I went back to bed thinking “I’ll mention it in the morning.” Now I find Stefanie Chandler has beaten me to it. I’d never make a good lawyer; I need too much sleep. Of course, I’m A CNA, so that’s not much better.
I can’t believe you haven’t seen Philadelphia!
I know. *hangs head in shame*
I love My Cousin Vinny! So many hilarious scenes! I’m offended by over-the-top movies that poke fun at southerners, but My Cousin Vinny was spot on.
It’s one thing to be mocked with derision and another to be teased with kindness. I’m thinking about the way the witnesses were cross-examined, “What do think now, Dear?”
You missed ‘The Rainmaker’ with Matt Damon and ‘A Civil Action’ with Robert Duvall and John Travolta. Those are actually my favorites, but you did remind me there are others…
The Rainmaker was on the long list but did not make the cut. It would have been on the top of Honorable Mentions. I saw A Civil Action when it first came out, but it did not stay with me. I’ll have to take another look.
Agree 100% on all of these! 🙂
I just saw one on TCM Noir Alley called THE PHENIX CITY STORY, that had a courtroom scene that was actually believable. And it worked. 🙂
Well, I’ll add that to the list. I trust your opinion when it comes to the criminal/legal element, Debbi!
Great choices! And, yes, Legally Blonde is totally list-worthy. Thanks for the reminder of how great these movies are. 🍿
Gotta love Elle! It was fun to list them and remind folks. Movies that I know and love have been unseen by others. All are worth revisiting.
When my kids were young, I took care of the neighborhood. All the kids came to my house. When school started, I told the kids that Santa Clause had called and I had hired on as part time elf. (Because I was only part time, I didn’t have to be small like the other guys.) They brought me all the junk they could find and I would make things out of it.
That may be why I am slightly predacious but my favorite it “Miracle On 34th Street”. It starts with one little letter and then an avalanche of letters from the dead letter office.
I had completely forgotten about the courtroom scene in The Miracle on 34th Street. It has everything — hearsay, foundation evidence, medical testimony, and politics. Great addition to the list.