Since the beginning of cinema, the courtroom has been an (often climatically) important setting for the action to take place. Courtroom monologues stick out and stick with us – for instance, who could forget Jack Nicholson’s famous ‘You can’t handle the truth!’. Academy Awards have been won and careers have been made from courtroom monologues. It’s one of those real world settings that is perfectly set up for writers; long instances of intense back-and-forth dialogue in a place where we can suspend our disbelief, often knowing full well that what flies in a cinematic courtroom would never fly in the real world. Either way, some of the best performances have taken place in or surrounding a courtroom. Here is our list:
10. “Michael Clayton” starring George Clooney
This gritty thriller about a ‘clean up lawyer’ who gets wrapped up in a shady merger deal for his firm’s client that ultimately ends up putting him in danger. This movie sucks you in to the point where you almost wonder if this really is how it is at some ultra-competitive mega-firms. Although almost none of the action takes place in the courtroom, this movie makes the list because of its original spin on lawyer movies.
9. “Kramer vs. Kramer” starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep
Although most of this movie takes place outside the courtroom, it makes it onto this list because of the scene in which Hoffman and Streep’s characters are locked in a bitter custody battle. In the scene, Streep gives a performance for which she won an Oscar. In the scene she is being questioned by Hoffman’s character’s attorney, she emphatically breaks down and proclaims that she is her son’s “mother!”.
8. “Primal Fear” starring Edward Norton and Richard Gere
This movie was Edward Norton’s first film. Norton played a stuttering murder defendant being represented by Richard Gere. Edward Norton’s character is presented as being a mentally disturbed individual with competing dual personalities. His other personality, “Roy”, jumps over the witness box and attacks the prosecutor. In the end, there were no dueling personalities, it was all a ruse to present an insanity defense.
7. “The Rainmaker” starring Matt Damon and Danny DeVito
This John Grishman novel turned movie follows Damon and DeVito as they take on a string of cases where the main focus shifts to become about the attorneys on all sides.
6. “The Client” starring Mary-Louise Parker, Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon
This movie’s story is another Grisham creation. Sarandon’s character is hired by a child who holds a secret that had put him in danger. Tommy Lee Jones plays a Federal Prosecutor. There is one particularly memorable scene that led to Susan Sarandon winning an Academy Award.
5. “My Cousin Vinny” starring Joe Pesci, and Marisa Tomei
This is the one where Joe Pesci plays a small town lawyer that has everyone rooting for his character, Vinny, and his client Lisa by the ending courtroom scene. Full of stereotypes, this one is still funny.
4. “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington
This is the movie that starts off following an attorney played by Tom Hanks and ends in the courtroom with Hanks’ character being represented by Washington’s character. Washington’s character is trying to win a wrongful termination lawsuit based on a law firm’s discrimination of Hank’s character because he has AIDS. What makes the movie good isn’t so much the legal scenes, rather, Washington’s character’s growing and eventual acceptance of Hank’s character and his plight.
3. “A Few Good Men” starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore
This is the movie with one of the most memorable courtroom quotes, ‘You can’t Handle the Truth!’. This movie actually displayed some effective cross-examination strategy when Kevin Bacon’s character, a JAG, continually challenges Cruise’s character, who eventually prevails.
2. “The Verdict” starring Paul Newman
This movie stands out based on the acting of Paul Newman, which is top notch here. The courtoom action is not especially realistic and the medical malpractice case that is at the center of this movie might be difficult for practicing attorneys to stomach. However, Newman’s acting shines as his character prevails against a corrupt judge, a corporate legal team, and discovery issues.
1. “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck
How could you have a list like this and not include To Kill a Mockingbird? This is the quintessential courtroom movie. Atticus Finch stays calm and collected through the whole legal proceeding that was doomed from the start. The movie is packed with great acting and dramatic moments right down to the movie’s ending scene. The movie won an Academy Award and is near the top of many lists outlining the best movies of all time.
Author Bio: Lance Brusilow is the owner of Brusilow+Associates, a Philadelphia court reporting and litigation support agency. Aside from working with attorneys every day, he is a fan of legal movies. You can read more about Lance on his blog, www.phillycourtreporters.com.