From shocking legal thrillers to heart-wrenching stories of social justice, the courtroom drama is one of the most enduring genres in cinema. These are the best movies about the law that ever hit the big screen. Chadwick Boseman proves he’s a star-making force in the 2010s, first with 42 and then this stirring courtroom drama about Thurgood Marshall’s early career.
1. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Among the classic courtroom dramas, few have touched the hearts of audiences like this one. Impossibly folksy and charming Jimmy Stewart defends an army lieutenant accused of killing an innkeeper in this riveting 1959 film. The story’s climax is a profound indictment of a justice system that prioritizes its own prejudices over finding the truth.
It was originally billed as a comedy, but this film offers some real edge-of-your-seat tension in its exploration of a murder case with plenty of twists and turns. Edward Norton gives an inspired performance as the lawyer, and a young Harrison Ford is also on top form. This film demonstrates how far the law can go when love, ambition, jealousy, and greed are involved. The plot twists in this film are dazzling, and they make for a fascinating study. It’s a dark tale of backstabbing and double-crosses.
2. 12 Angry Men (1960)
In this classic Sidney Lumet courtroom drama, Henry Fonda’s skepticism on what appears to be an open and shut murder case causes the other jurors to more thoroughly consider the evidence before jumping to a hasty verdict. The film’s evocative use of formal visual control (framing of groups to emphasize sways of power, speech from off screen and overlapping dialogue) and naturalistic acting create a powerful sense of tension and urgency.
Like Kazan’s On the Waterfront a year earlier, Twelve Angry Men is an idealist movie in a cynical world. It appeals to a more receptive humanity, whether on the grand scale of a nation or on the smaller—but no less significant—scale of juror 3’s rediscovery of the quality of mercy. The result is an enduring masterpiece. 12 Angry Men is one of the most famous courtroom movies ever made.
3. The Firm (1990)
Whether it’s about social justice, corrupt officials or unveiled conspiracies, courtroom dramas are all about the fight for truth. This powerful genre has produced some of the most compelling gomovies out there, with a variety of riveting plot twists and a heart-wrenching message to get across.
Director Billy Wilder made a name for himself with comedies, but this intense legal thriller is one of his finest works. With enough backstabs and double-crosses to fill a CSI episode, this film is filled with dark themes of greed and deceit. Henry Fonda’s performance as the lone holdout on a jury that is ready to convict without enough evidence is unforgettable. This is an absolute must-watch movie.
4. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1999)
The real-life trial of the controversial Hustler magazine founder is the subject of this gripping courtroom drama. Woody Harrelson and a solid supporting cast make this one to watch. Few films capture the sleazy side of celebrity like this one. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the nexus between politics, money, and power.
Meryl Streep won her first Oscar for this riveting film, based on true events. It’s also a must-see for any fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work. The movie’s scathing critique of misogyny and the incompetence of our judicial system is just as pertinent today as it was when it was released. And don’t miss Arthur Kirkland’s epic courtroom breakdown near the end. It’s a scene that’s forever burned into cinematic history.
5. A Few Good Men (1992)
While it’s easy to dismiss courtroom dramas as a cookie-cutter genre that often has the same formula, there are some great films in the genre. These films often tell powerful, heart-wrenching stories about social justice and unveiled conspiracies that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the end.
It’s easy to boil down Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men down to Jack Nicholson yelling “You can’t handle the truth!” But the film is actually a riveting legal drama about a military lawyer taking on two Marines charged with murder for following orders in a hazing incident. It’s a must-see for any film buff. Aaron Sorkin’s lauded script and top-notch performances from Tom Cruise and Demi Moore make it a true classic.