Justice is one of the fundamental rights of human beings. As different civilizations left their footprints on the face of earth, it was the law of the land that made or broke them. Along its way, the law took various forms and many turns to become strong and rigid. But it was those stories or incidents that equipped the law to help the helpless from the clutches of the evil. At times, it was a couple fighting for their love; sometimes it was a man fighting for his fundamental rights; and at times, it all came down to the humanity to fight against a tyrant. All these made some great cases. And from these cases, came out some really great movies.
So we, at The Cinemaholic, decided to the list down all top courtroom drama movies ever made that left an impact that resonates even till this date. Some of these can can also be classified as legal thriller movies. You can stream several of these best courtroom drama movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
10. Michael Clayton (2007)
A lawyer tired from the ongoing problem in his life stops the car on a deserted place. He walks out of the car to admire a group of horses grazing when suddenly, his car bursts to flame. And thus starts Michael Clayton’s tryst with a system ridden with lies, guilt, corruption and that one thing that goes missing in everybody involved but him – ethics. George Clooney plays the titular character with such elan that he manages to stand out among Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack. Playing a fixer in a law firm who gets into trouble for standing his ground, Clooney keeps it right on the edge.
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9. Philadelphia (1994)
A disease which cannot be named. A disease that made people shun the patient. Such was the infamy of AIDS. ‘Philadelphia’ brought out the harassment and the ostracism that people diagnosed with it had to face. A man employed at a corporate legal firm is sacked in the guise of him being unfit for the job, while in the reality, it’s the disease that made the top honchos take the decision. As several lawyers refuse to represent him as he challenges the decision in the court of law, he takes it on himself to clean his name. His fight for survival makes even the staunchest of homophobic people listen to him.
Tom Hanks won his first academy award for best actor for his portrayal of the man wronged by the system. Hanks’ heartbreakingly honest performance is without a doubt the highlight of the film. It is amazing to see how he transforms from a cheerful, funny, smart lawyer to a devastated man trying to gain justice and fight for his own life. Hanks is ably supported by Denzel Washington, who plays Joe Miller, a homophobic lawyer who ultimately decides to take up Hanks’ case. Though the film isn’t close to the greatest works of the 90s, it still is a brilliant portrait of a brave man struggling to fight a terrible disease and building a place for himself in a cruel, unfair world. Without a doubt one of the most important movies ever made.
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8. A Few Good Men (1992)
A soldier remains at his post at the border, brandishing his weapon and ready to lay down his life, for the country. But does his bravery give him the leeway to restrict the civil rights of a fellow soldier? Adapted for the big screen from the stage play of same name, ‘A Few Good Men’ is about a few good men trying to fight for the meek and the oppressed. A soldier dies at GITMO and the blame goes to a couple of fellow soldiers for their negligence. As the accused men plead that they were under order to punish the soldiers, one of the laziest of military lawyers sets out to take up their case. What unfurls next on screen is the coming-of-age performance of Tom Cruise and the sheer brilliance of that man – Jack Nicholson. And as the curtain comes down, it keeps reverberating in your ears.
Nicholson’s performance, in many ways, define the film. As Colonel Nathan R Jessup, he is charismatic, intimidating and ruthless. It was a tailor made role for Nicholson. The final scene in the courtroom elevates the movie to a different level altogether, as tension builds further, leading to shocking revelations. Though Nicholson chews the scenes that he’s in with his remarkable screen presence, Tom Cruise manages to hold the film and stands toe to toe with Nicholson, which in itself is a great achievement for a any actor. ‘A Few Good Men’ is, in my opinion, one of the better films of the 90s and one of the finest courtroom dramas of all time.
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7. Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
People fall in love, get married and then all of a sudden, fall out of love. While the immediate next step is to separate, it’s the children who bear the brunt of the separation. But can the court of law decide which parent can love the child most? ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ tells a poignant story of a couple and their bitter fight for the custody of their son. The characters probably mirror our own selves. While we see them fighting out an ugly mudslinging legal fight, it’s our own dark selves that we see on screen.
Starring Dustin Hoffman and the marvelous Meryl Streep, this movie won five academy awards including best film, best director, best actor and best supporting actor. The performances are truly remarkable. Meryl Streep, in only her fifth film, displays astonishing maturity in her performance. Her portrayal of a young mother who’s struggling to figure out what she wants in life is extremely impressive. The film continues to received unfair hatred for having won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1980 over Francis Ford Coppola‘s ‘Apocalypse Now’. Though it doesn’t come anywhere close to Coppola’s Vietnam classic, it still is one of the finest movies of the 70s and has aged really well. ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ must be watched for the sincere message it tries to convey and for the unforgettable performances from its lead actors.
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6. A Man For All Seasons (1966)
In 16th century London, there were two power positions — Vatican and the Royals. When the King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage, it was obvious that the Vatican will oppose it. So the king wanted himself to be declared as the supreme leader of the church. When the king asks, everybody obeys. But Sir Thomas More was not everybody. History portrays him as a man of conscience who stood firmly on his beliefs and was beheaded for treason as he refused to bow down to the king’s whims. The movie depicts his final days in the court of law where he was tried for treason. The film was a huge success and won six academy awards including best picture, best director and best actor for Paul Scofield for his brilliant performance as More.
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5. In The Name Of The Father (1993)
Entangled in between the age old feud of the English and the IRA, this is the true story of Gerry Conlon and his father Giuseppe and their struggle of fifteen years of the injustice meted to them. At the heights of IRA insurgency, Gerry is arrested as a suspected bomber and soon, his father follows suit. Over years, the father and son with different perspectives of their own mend their relationship and as the father dies, the son continues the legal fight to prove their innocence.
Nominated for seven academy awards and winning none, this movie showcases the true brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis, who is phenomenal in the lead role. The intensity with which he portrays the character is truly remarkable and that elevates the film to a whole different level altogether. The interrogation scene in which he has an outburst while the cops mentally torture him is one of the greatest acting moments in cinema. Day-Lewis has admitted that he has gone to extreme lengths to play the role, like, trying to sleep in prison, in order to understand the character on a deeper emotional level. It may still not be his greatest performance but it is, without a doubt, one of the finest acting performances of the 90s.
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4. Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)
A lawyer gets a call from a woman, who claims her husband, a lieutenant, killed a man because he violated her modesty. As the legal proceedings begin, more facts tumble down about the questionable character of the woman. Thus, it becomes a case where the public prosecutor argues about the murder being a cold-blooded one whereas the defence puts its faith on ‘irresistible impulse’ which questions the sanity of the murderer at the time of killing. As lawyers at loggerheads, James Stewart and George C Scott gave electrifying performances as it turns out to be a game of wits over allegations. A cinematic masterpiece, ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ was nominated for seven academy awards.
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3. Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
The atrocities committed against the Jews will probably go down in history as one of the cruelest decisions of one mad German. For modern-day historians, it’s probably the most heinous crime ever to have occurred during WWII. It took shape as the final solution of the so-called Jewish question and resulted in the deaths of innocents. But how did the Germans reach to the consensus so ghastly in nature? ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ explores this question as four German judges stand trial for having sentenced innocents to death during the Nazi regime. Based on the actual trials, this movie brings out the reasons behind the cruelty that men exude in the guise of accountability. True to its tag line, it’s an extraordinary motion picture that explodes into greatness.
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2. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
When an African-American man, in a racially divided country, got accused of raping a white woman, you can guess how the people would have reacted. At the peak of racial injustices, when a court full of white people were baying for his blood, it came down to one man to fight the case. One white man named Atticus Finch. He fought valiantly to put forward the fact that all men are created equals in the court of law. His efforts go futile, as the court pronounces the man guilty. But what stays back with the viewer is the lesson that Atticus Finch inculcates into his children — that is, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view’. The movie is based on Harper Lee’s bestseller of the same name and stars Gregory Peck in the lead role, who delivers, arguably, the best performance of his career.
Several critics and cinephiles, however, have issues with the film’s sentimental approach and argue that the film hasn’t really aged well. Though it is true that several aspects of the movie hasn’t aged well, it still deserves to be watched for its honesty and good intentions. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may not be the most nuanced depiction of racism in cinema, but the attempt here is quite sincere and heartfelt. Watch it, and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
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1. 12 Angry Men (1957)
An 18-year-old boy is accused of stabbing his father and the jury of twelve men deliberate on their decision to vote him guilty. All jurors vote guilty but one. And thus starts the epic tale of ’12 Angry Men’. One of the rarest movies that does not boast of exquisite visuals or melodrama but simply relies on its content. In a claustrophobic room, the 12 jurors contemplate their views about the guilt of the accused. As time progresses and facts start to materialise from their angry discussions, it becomes evident that with a reasonable doubt about the crime and the way it was committed, it is very difficult to pronounce a man guilty.
Sidney Lumet is undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers of the 70s who still remains, for some strange reason, vastly underrated. The man could barely hit a wrong note. ’12 Angry Men’ is arguably one of his finest works. His authoritative vision and impeccable skills as a director is brilliantly displayed in the film. The way he creates raw dramatic tension in every scene is astonishing. The movie received unanimous acclaim from critics at the time of its release, who praised it for its vision, approach and performances. ’12 Angry Men continues to be held in high regard by several critics and cinephiles across the world and is often listed among the greatest films ever made.
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