The courtroom drama has been of Hollywood’s most prestigious dramas for decades. Stories about tense and dramatic trials have enthralled audiences since the medium’s inception, producing some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed and iconic pictures.
As part of their celebration of film, the American Film Institute included the courtroom drama among the ten genres they acknowledged in their 10 x Top 10. Describing it as “a genre of film in which a system of justice plays a crucial role in the film’s narrative,” the AFI named their picks for the all-time best courtroom dramas, including some of cinema’s most celebrated pictures.
- ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ (1961)
An impressive ensemble, including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift, stars in the 1961 courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg. The plot concerns the Judges’ Trial of 1947, one of the many trials conducted by the US in World War II’s aftermath.
- ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (1988)
It was the quote on everybody’s mind in 1988: “The dingo took my baby!” Meryl Streep delivers one of the most powerful performances of her acclaimed career in the Australian drama A Cry in the Dark. The film dramatises Azaria Chamberlain’s 1980 disappearance and her parents’ subsequent fight to defend themselves against the public, who were convinced they were complicit in her death.
- ‘In Cold Blood’ (1967)
Based on Truman Capote’s best-selling non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood stars Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as the infamous duo behind the Clutter murders of 1959. The film deals with the murders and the duo’s subsequent escape, with the police tracking their moves.
- ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959)
Iconic Golden Age director Otto Preminger directed James Stewart in the seminal courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a semi-retired lawyer who takes on the case of an army lieutenant who murdered a local innkeeper who allegedly sexually assaulted his wife.
- ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (1957)
Marlene Dietrich stars opposite Tyrone Powers in Billy Wilder’s courtroom mystery drama Witness for the Prosecution. Based on Agatha Christie’s eponymous play, the plot concerns a British barrister who faces trouble when his client’s wife testifies against him during a murder trial.
- ‘A Few Good Men’ (1992)
The 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men united three of the biggest stars from the 90s in one of Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplays. Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore star in the film about a military lawyer defending two marines charged with murder in Guantanamo.
Powered by Sorkin’s trademark fast-paced dialog and featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances, A Few Good Men is a classic of the courtroom drama genre. The film is thrilling, tense, and unexpectedly quotable, with Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” becoming one of cinema’s most iconic lines.
- ‘The Verdict’ (1982)
Paul Newman shines in Sidney Lumet’s 1982 courtroom drama The Verdict. The acclaimed actor plays a disgraced lawyer struggling with alcoholism who takes on a medical malpractice case to improve his reputation, only to discover a larger situation unveiling behind the scenes.
The Verdict is the perfect and exhilarating combination of a confident director, a powerful performer, and a clever screenwriter. The film is an elegant and insightful look into the process, offering a revealing depiction of courtroom drama that stays entertaining by never getting overly technical.
- ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979)
Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman took the stand in the 1979 legal family drama Kramer vs. Kramer. The film deals with a couple’s divorce after the mother leaves the family, leading to the father unexpectedly bonding with his young son. However, their new connection is threatened when the mother returns, demanding full custody.
Kramer vs. Kramer is among the most brutal and uncompromising depictions of marriage dissolution in American cinema. The trial scenes are intense and mortifying, with the couple’s attorneys ruthlessly attacking them to the point of character assassination. Hoffman and Streep’s tour de force performances, aided by a smart but decisive screenplay, make Kramer vs. Kramer one of the best films of 1979 and a masterpiece of the legal genre.
- ’12 Angry Men’ (1957)
Unsurprisingly, Sidney Lumet is behind the AFI’s second choice for the all-time best courtroom dramas, thanks to his seminal 1957 picture 12 Angry Men. Henry Fonda leads an impressive cast in a film about a 12-men jury deliberating the conviction of a teenager charged with murder.
Searing and highly dramatic, 12 Angry Men is a fascinating depiction of morality in the face of doubt. One of cinema’s best ensembles brings this powerful and intense story to vibrant life, crafting an absorbing and thought-provoking exercise in tension that will divide audiences with its undeniably rewarding but reasonably questionable verdict.
- ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962)
Harper Lee’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, received a film adaptation in 1962. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a Black man accused of sexually assaulting two white women in Depression-era Alabama.
Hollywood has done a lot of “message” movies, but hardly any measure up to To Kill a Mockingbird. It remains a compelling and triumphant courtroom drama unlike any other.