5 Best Courtroom Movies Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

, 2016

Here’s a based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama that transcends the limits of its genre by virtue of an incisive and unexpectedly prescient script. Twenty years before 2016 sent us hurtling through the looking glass and into a post-truth era, the idea that you could deny the facts as you pleased teetered terrifyingly on the brink of legitimacy when author David Irving (a suitably odious Timothy Spall) brought a UK libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an academic whom he claimed had defamed him for calling him exactly what he was: a Holocaust denier.

The case was complicated by the fact that, at the time, the UK placed the burden of proof on the defendant — in other words, Lipstadt’s hotshot legal team needed to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence demonstrating this. Denial captures that terrifying farcicality and the defense’s cleverly counterintuitive strategy: not allowing Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors to speak. If that sounds unsatisfying — this is the rare courtroom drama with no grandstanding speech from the protagonist — that’s the point, something the film’s title cleverly alludes to. Perhaps unexpectedly, Denial’s relevance has ballooned since its release, a fact that might hobble its hopeful ending but that only makes the rest all the more powerful.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Cruttenden, Alex Jennings, Amanda Lawrence, Andrea Deck, Andrew Scott, Caren Pistorius, Daniel Cerqueira, Edward Franklin, Elliot Levey, Harriet Walter, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Ian Bartholomew, Jack Lowden, Jackie Clune, Jeremy Paxman, John Sessions, Lachele Carl, Laura Evelyn, Mark Gatiss, Max Befort, Mick Jackson, Nicholas Tennant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Paul Bailey, Paul Hunter, Pip Carter, Rachel Weisz, Sally Messham, Sara Powell, Sean Power, Timothy Spall, Todd Boyce, Tom Clarke Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Will Attenborough, Ziggy Heath

Director: Mick Jackson

Rating: PG-13

Even a director of William Friedkin’s caliber had his work cut out for him with this remake of the towering 1957 drama tracking a jury's fraught deliberations in an apparently open-and-shut murder trial. Wisely, he changes little: most of the incisive dialogue remains the same, and the film still only takes place in one sweltering room on New York’s hottest day.

There are some key differences, though: namely, in a few of the characters (most notably Mykelti Williamson’s ex-Nation of Islam member Juror #10, who helps update the story to the '90s) and the intensification of the ensemble’s star power. The all-star quality of the cast is never wielded to call attention to itself, though; everyone, from James Gandolfini and William Petersen to Tony Danza and Edward James Olmos is on fine character acting form here. Replacing the unforgettable Henry Fonda is Jack Lemmon (exuding warmth and good sense) as the principled lone dissenter who calmly wages a war of words with George C. Scott’s bigoted Juror #3 to give real justice a chance. The 1957 version is admittedly a timeless classic, but Friedkin's version isn't very far off from reaching its predecessor’s dazzling heft plus, this stands as a compelling argument that every era should have its own 12 Angry Men.

Genre: Crime, Drama, TV Movie

Actor: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Courtney B. Vance, Dorian Harewood, Douglas Spain, Edward James Olmos, George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini, Mary McDonnell, Mykelti Williamson, Ossie Davis, Tony Danza, Tyrees Allen, William Petersen

Director: William Friedkin

Rating: PG-13

The late, great William Friedkin’s final film is staged with all the military precision of its naval court setting. We never leave the courtroom from the moment we’re plunged into it — the first minute — meaning the contentious action around which the film revolves happens only in our imagination, spurred on by the competing accounts of Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy) and Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland). Maryk is accused of mutiny, but, as he tells it, he only seized command from Queeg during a typhoon because he feared that the Commander was experiencing an episode of mental instability that would endanger the lives of everyone onboard. 

The lack of flashbacks to this crucial moment places the burden of bearing out the truth on the cast, which includes Jason Clarke as Maryk’s lawyer, Monica Raymund as Queeg’s counsel, and Lance Reddick — the naturally authoritative late actor to whom the film is dedicated — as the judge. The film's lack of visual pizzazz is to its advantage, then, because it allows this excellent cast (and Friedkin’s searing script) to flex under the full, burning gaze of the spotlight. Clarke, in particular, emerges as the standout as the reluctant navy lawyer — a man caught between the impulse to expose one truth and conceal another.

Genre: Drama, TV Movie, War

Actor: Dale Dye, Denzel Johnson, Elizabeth Anweis, Francois Battiste, Gabe Kessler, Gina Garcia, Jake Lacy, Jason Clarke, Jay Duplass, Kiefer Sutherland, Lance Reddick, Lewis Pullman, Monica Raymund, Stephanie Erb, Tom Riley

Director: William Friedkin

Rating: PG-13

This slow Italian drama tells the true story of Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta, who became the highest-profile Mafia informant at the time of his arrest in the 1980s.

Tommaso, while supervising a criminal network in Sicily, moved to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to attempt a more legal and quieter life. His role catches up with him and he is quickly arrested.

As a biopic, it rarely depicts violence or glorifies organized crime. Instead, it attempts to document the life of a Mafia boss more realistically: a life of always looking over one's shoulder and of constant loss. Eventually, the movie focuses on what it would take for a man like Tommaso to flip, and what that would cost him.

The Mafia topic might feel overdone, but watching this, it's startling to realize how few thorough character studies have come out in film.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Alessio Praticò, André Lamoglia, Antonio Orlando, Aurora Peres, Bebo Storti, Bruno Cariello, Cinzia Susino, Claudio Collovà, Dino Santoro, Domenico Gennaro, Edoardo Strano, Elia Schilton, Fabrizio Ferracane, Fabrizio Romano, Fausto Russo Alesi, Francesco Emanuele Chinnici, Giovanni Calcagno, Giovanni Vettorazzo, Goffredo Maria Bruno, Jonas Bloch, Leo Wainer, Luciano Quirino, Ludovico Caldarera, Luigi Lo Cascio, Marco Gambino, Maria Amato, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Michelangelo Cicirello, Nicola Calí​, Nicola Calì, Nicola Siri, Nunzia Lo Presti, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Pierfrancesco Favino, Pietro Pace, Raffaella D'Avella, Raffaella Lebboroni, Rainer Cadete, Sergio Pierattini, Tommaso Buscetta, Vincenzo Ferrera, Vincenzo Pirrotta

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Rating: R

Miranda’s Victim often feels like two different movies smushed into one. On the one hand, it tells the story of how Trish finds the courage to speak up against her abuser, who happens to be a person of color. On the other hand, it shows us the legal intricacies that led to the founding of what we now know as Miranda Rights. In better hands, these two stories (one emotional and one technical) could’ve worked well together, and they would’ve spoken to the intersectionality at the heart of this complicated case. But instead of going for nuance, instead of exploring the complex racial and gender politics that inform this case, Director Michelle Danner goes in all sorts of odd directions as if herself confused about what the focus should be. 

Breslin is heartbreaking and powerful as Trish, but she’s only given so much to act with. Despite being based on a real person, her character is reduced to trauma and tears—a caricature of abuse—and nothing more. The movie is at its strongest when it converts into pure courtroom drama by the third act. Suddenly, it’s brisk and intelligent, bolstered by the compelling one-two punches of the judge (a commanding Donald Sutherland) and the two lawyers (Ryan Philippe, a revelation, and Luke Wilson, only slightly better here than in his earlier turn in Legally Blonde). As a story about violation and abuse, there’s surprisingly little compassion to be found, despite the title. But as a legal drama, it’s as informative as it can be. 

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Breslin, Andy Garcia, Brent Sexton, Brian Colin Foley, Dan Lauria, Donald Sutherland, Emily VanCamp, Enrique Murciano, James Healy Jr., Jann Ellis, Josephine Hies, Joshua Bowman, Kyle MacLachlan, Luke Wilson, Michael Mulheren, Mireille Enos, Najah Bradley, Nolan Gould, Ryan Phillippe, Sheilagh Weymouth, Taryn Manning

Director: Michelle Danner