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20 Best Courtroom Dramas That Will Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat

These are the big-screen legal battles that made film history.

Your honor, if it pleases the court, we have evidence that proves that the following films are some of the best courtroom dramas of all time. It's no surprise why so many great movies take place inside a courtroom. The legal system is built for drama—a trial provides a natural framework for a narrative with plenty of opportunities for unexpected twists and reveals. A real-life trial is often fascinating to watch, so of course a dramatization, either of a real trial or a fictional scenario, would be entertaining, too.

But not all legal movies are courtroom movies. There are lots of great legal thrillers, such as Michael Clayton and The Pelican Brief, that don't have all that much action taking place inside an actual courtroom, while great legal procedural films such as Erin Brockovich and Dark Waters also largely focus on the work lawyers do outside of the court. The following list of 20 movies, though, all have major scenes that take place inside the halls of justice. Read on to learn about the best courtroom movies.

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The Best Courtroom Dramas Ever Made

12 Angry Men (1957)

Sidney Lumet's 1957 film takes place almost entirely inside one room as a jury of 12 men deliberate over whether or not to convict a young man accused of murder to death. At the onset, 11 of them are ready to cast guilty votes, but one juror, played by Henry Fonda, has doubts. He presses his fellow jurors to consider the evidence, leading to a heated debate with immense consequences. 12 Angry Men isn't just one of the best courtroom movies of all time—it's one of the best films ever made.

The Accused (1988)

Jodie Foster stars as a woman who has been the victim of a violent sexual assault by a gang of men, only to find that her checkered past makes her an unsympathetic accuser. Her lawyer (Kelly McGillis) encourages her to take a plea bargain that lets her assailants off with a much lighter sentence than they deserve. When Foster's character has an encounter with one of her attackers afterward, her lawyer sees a chance to do right by her client and get a second chance at justice. The Accused was critically acclaimed, and Foster won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.

A Few Good Men (1992)

Known for Jack Nicholson's iconic outburst on the witness stand during the climatic moment, A Few Good Men is one of the most re-watchable movies there is. Tom Cruise stars as a hotshot Navy lawyer who must defend two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier, in the process uncovering a dark secret. Rob Reiner directed the 1992 film, an adaptation of Aaron Sorkin's play of the same name from a few years earlier.

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

This acclaimed 2023 French film, which has dialogue in French, English, and German, is worth watching as an American if only to see just how different—and wild—trials are in France. Sandra Hüller stars as a woman on trial for the death of her husband, who fell (or was he pushed?) to his death at their remote mountain home. Beyond being a crackling legal drama, Anatomy of a Fall, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a deft exploration of guilt, relationships, and the truth.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Fall's title is clearly inspired by that of Anatomy of a Murder, which came out more than 60 years earlier—and for good reason. The film, directed by Otto Preminger, is one of the great trial movies, telling the story of a Michigan lawyer defending an Army lieutenant who murdered a man accused of raping his wife.

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The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023)

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is the final film from director William Friedkin, released posthumously in 2023 (and it was a posthumous release for actor Lance Reddick as well). An adaptation of a play from the '50s, the movie is extremely stripped-down, taking place entirely in a courtroom as a lieutenant stands on trial to determine whether the mutiny he led against a decorated (if erratic) captain during a storm was justified. It's a testament to the source material, the actors, and Friedkin's direction that the film is tense and utterly gripping despite consisting almost entirely of testimony with no cutaways or effects.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Can a horror movie be a courtroom movie? The Exorcism of Emily Rose says yes. This 2005 movie from Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson focuses on the trial of a Catholic priest who has been charged with negligent homicide for the death of a young woman during an attempted exorcism. Faith and law combine in this unique—and chilling—mixture of two classic film genres.

JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone's conspiracy theory masterpiece has received criticism for some of the conclusions it draws about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but that has no bearing on how fascinating and watchable his 1991 movie is. Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who was responsible for the only trial ever held about the 1963 assassination. JFK is well over three hours in length, but they fly by, especially the electrifying final section that covers the trial itself.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

One of the more consequential trials in modern history serves as the subject of Judgment at Nuremberg, a 1961 film that offers a fictionalized take on the military tribunals that sought to bring the Nazis and their collaborators who were responsible for the Holocaust to justice. Directed by Stanley Kramer, the film explores guilt, culpability, and the nature of evil.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in this Best Picture-winning drama as a married couple going through a contentious divorce. A landmark movie, Kramer vs. Kramer is a nuanced, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching examination of modern relationships and parenting, and it features an especially ugly courtroom scene.

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Legally Blonde (2001)

Many movies about court cases, due to the potential gravity of the trial, are pretty serious affairs. Legally Blonde, the 2001 legal rom-com starring Reese Witherspoon, is a delightful breath of fresh air. Witherspoon, here at her most charming, plays sorority girl Elle Woods, and the film follows her as she heads to Harvard Law and triumphs not just in the courtroom but against dumb blonde stereotypes—while also teaching the "bend and snap" move.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Yes, technically the beloved 1947 Christmas movie is also a courtroom drama, too. A department store Santa claims to be the real Saint Nick, a delusion (or is it?) that leads to him being sent to a mental hospital. It's up to an attorney who has become close with the woman and her daughter who have taken this Kris Kringle in to defend him in court by proving, legally, that there is a Santa Claus.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

It's not just the defendants and prosecutors who clash in this classic 1992 comedy. Cultures clash too, after two New Yorkers are arrested and tried for a murder they didn't commit down in Alabama. Their only hope at acquittal? One of them has a cousin, Vinny (Joe Pesci), who just passed the bar and travels from Brooklyn with his wife (Marisa Tomei, who won an unexpected Oscar for the role) to help his family out. Comedy ensues.

Paths of Glory (1957)

The first half of Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war masterpiece is a thrilling, harrowing action epic. Kirk Douglas plays a French commander in WWI who has been ordered by his superiors to lead his men across the trenches in an attack that is doomed to failure. It's an incredible action set piece, especially for the era in which it was made, and it's followed by a legal drama for the ages. Douglas must attempt to defend three of his men in a rigged court-martial to prevent them from being executed as punishment for the so-called "cowardice" that led to the attack's failure.

Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks stars as Andrew Beckett, a Philadelphia lawyer who sues his former employer after being wrongfully terminated because he is a gay man with AIDS—a disease that was horribly stigmatized during the '80s and '90s. Jonathan Demme's film, which co-stars Denzel Washington as a lawyer who overcomes his own prejudices to help Beckett, was a massive success at the box office and praised for how it thoughtfully presented those with AIDS, who were otherwise marginalized and shunned in popular culture.

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Primal Fear (1996)

Edward Norton made an auspicious film debut as an altar boy accused of brutally murdering a Chicago archbishop in this 1996 movie. Richard Gere plays a high-profile defense attorney who sees the case as a chance to defend an innocent, for once. A mystery with thrills and twists, Primal Fear is worth watching for its stunning ending alone.

The Rainmaker (1997)

Author John Grisham is responsible for dozens of legal thrillers—many of which became acclaimed movies, including 1997's The Rainmaker, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a young underemployed lawyer who stumbles upon a massive insurance scandal and must square off against corrupt corporate America in all its might.

Runaway Jury (2003)

Another film based on a John Grisham novel, Runaway Jury stars Gene Hackman as a crooked jury consultant attempting to rig the outcome of a major case against a gun manufacturer for negligence following a mass shooting. However, John Cusack's character sits on the jury, and he appears to have his own agenda and the ability to sway opinions inside the deliberation room.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Harper Lee's seminal novel is many things—a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of race in the Deep South, etc.—but it's also a thrilling courtroom drama. Gregory Peck plays father and lawyer Atticus Finch in the Oscar-winning 1962 adaptation, and it's stirring to watch him attempt to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman whose guilt is all but assumed because of his race. The American Film Institute named Peck's Atticus Finch the No. 1 cinematic hero in 100 years of American movies, and it's easy to see why.

The Verdict (1982)

Paul Newman stars in this Sidney Lumet drama as an alcoholic lawyer who surprises even himself when he opts to take a medical malpractice case to trial rather than settle for a hefty sum as expected, because he's been moved to do the right thing after seeing the victim's plight. Charlotte Rampling co-stars.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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