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10 of the Best Courtroom Movies

Credit: Screen Gems

Courtroom dramas may seem a dime a dozen (especially on television), but some trial stories shine above the rest, reminding us why evidence, facts and examination remain crucial to truth and justice.  Here are 10 great films which encourage us to think of truth, justice and other complex human issues and beliefs!

Here are the 10 movies which proves courtroom conversations are mostly charismatic..

10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Pretty much everyone’s heard of To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s pretty much obligatory for a list of courtroom dramas. Though the story is fictional, it’s nevertheless captivating. Gregory Peck stands prominently as Atticus Finch in a racially charged trial in the 1930s, where a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused of raping and beating a white woman. Robinson faces an all-white Jury and related issues of prejudice in the Alabama courtroom. Finch truly believes Robinson didn’t do it, but can he convince the Jury, and the town? To Kill a Mockingbird is also Robert Duvall’s film debut, as Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Credit: Universal Pictures

9. Helter Skelter (1976)

Based on the book Helter Skelter by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the 1976 film Helter Skelter transcends its made-for-TV limitations, through the sheer power of engaging storytelling and Steve Railsback’s incredible performance as murder cult icon Charles Manson. Think of it this way: The Tate-LaBianca murder trials were a huge sensation, so there was considerable pressure to adequately convey them on film. Some were impressed with Tom Gries as director, because the film holds a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. Was Charles Manson crazy or just a skilled manipulator? The truth is probably somewhere in between, as hinted at by Railsback’s depiction of the intelligent and dangerous leader.

Credit: Lorimar Productions

8. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

Another great film written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, The People vs. Larry Flynt spends plenty of time outside the courtroom, but is undeniably still a legal drama. Interestingly, pornographer Larry Flynt wasn’t just controversial for his porn publication Hustler, but also for his political leanings and his satirical articles about public figures, including TV Reverend Jerry Falwell.

Flynt is wonderfully played by Woody Harrelson, whose character argues he’s only guilty of having bad taste. Other standout performances include Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife Althea Leasure, Edward Norton as Attorney Alan Isaacman and Richard Paul as Jerry Falwell. The People vs. Larry Flynt makes people think about what freedom of speech really is, how far it can go and what it can accomplish to see it truly respected.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

7. 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men is a well-established courtroom drama, no doubt about it. The 1957 original starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E. G. Marshall and Jack Warden has inspired a slew of remakes over the years, and all of them seem to be pretty good, if not great. The story always focuses on the biases of the Jury – AKA the 12 angry men – as much as the guilt or innocence of the person on trial. Class and racial prejudice figure into the story, or even the inconvenience of one’s having to deliberate on a Jury.

In other words, 12 Angry Men is a very human tale about what it takes to reach a just and reasonable verdict. What is and is not reasonable doubt? How reliable is eyewitness testimony? It’s also clear that some people are more easily swayed than others, and whether or not a Jury gets along is important as well. 12 Angry Men is a timeless tale, greater than any courtroom’s walls (though it technically occurs in a Jury’s deliberation room). It’s a story that’s bound to have merit eternally, and not just as an old relic.

Credit: United Artists

6. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is undoubtedly one of the best courtroom drama films ever. Not only are the characters memorable and quirky, but the case is, too. James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, George C. Scott and jazz legend Duke Ellington bring a variety of flavors to their roles. Obviously, James Stewart is a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and brings his trademark voice and unique charm to a character that alternately seems simple and complex. On one hand, his character’s a small-town lawyer named Paul Biegler, who at times seems almost too rural for a professional courtroom. And he’s also a brilliant legal strategist who happens to love jazz piano.

Remick plays Laura Manion, whose husband – US Army Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Manion (Gazzara) – shot and killed innkeeper Barney Quill. The legal defense used by Manion and Biegler: the so-called ‘irresistible impulse’ defense is as fascinating as the characters. This means that the charged person could not control their actions at the time of the crime, or they were temporarily insane. The plot is based on a real life murder case in Michigan. On July 31, 1952, Lt. Coleman A. Peterson shot and killed Maurice Chenoweth in Big Bay, Michigan. Also of note: This is one of the few films shot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and certainly one of the most famous and successful.

Credit: Columbia Pictures Corporation

5. My Cousin Vinny (1992)

What would this list be without My Cousin Vinny? Joe Pesci shines as Vincent Gambini, a Lawyer lacking in courtroom etiquette and appearance, who nevertheless has a good heart and some actual skills. Marisa Tomei prominently appears as Mona Lisa Vito, Vinnie’s fiancé (a role that won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). Also appearing is Ralph Macchio as Bill Gambini, Vinny’s cousin, who is accused of murder along with Stan Rothenstein (played by Mitchell Whitfield). This film is also Fred Gwynne’s final film appearance, where he plays the memorably stern Judge Chamberlain Haller. Some of the film’s funniest moments are between Gwynne and Pesci – particularly Pesci’s pronunciation of the word ‘youths’.

The film’s story deals a lot with expert witness testimony. What makes someone an expert anyway? Is it that they have official licenses or degrees, or is it simply their level of knowledge and first-hand experience? Of course, Vinny also challenges the concept of courtroom demeanor and etiquette, in scenes that are often humorous, and even a little thought-provoking. In fact, the film has won praise for its realistic depiction of trial procedure. For example, Litigation and Trial has an article called “Every Young Trial Lawyer Needs To Watch My Cousin Vinny,” stating that “everything that happens in the movie could happen – and often does happen – at trial”. (Source: https://www.litigationandtrial.com/2012/03/articles/series/special-comment/my-cousin-vinny/)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

4. Big Eyes (2014)

Directed by Tim Burton and starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes looks at the incredible story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who ended up in a legal battle because Walter Keane took credit for all of her paintings. Yes, Keane sold her famous “big-eyed waif” paintings as his own. What ensues is a dramatic and often humorous look at the couple’s collapsing relationship, and the courtroom battle to prove who the real artist is.

At one point, Margaret and Walter are asked to paint separately in the courtroom, to showcase who had the real talent! Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski added some dramatic flair to the story, but it’s a unique and interesting movie even without all that.

Credit: The Weinstein Company

3. West of Memphis (2012)

Directed by Amy J. Berg and produced by Damien Echols and Peter Jackson, West of Memphis looks at the controversial case against Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin – collectively known as the West Memphis 3. Although three movies were previously made on the case, film critic Roger Ebert said: “If you only see one of them, this is the one to choose, because it has the benefit of hindsight”. It’s a fair reason to watch “West of Memphis”. It’s also well done aside from that factor, showing just how flimsy the case was against the three teenagers, imprisoned during a wave of anti-satanic moral panic in the deeply religious south.

The film also suggests other possible suspects, including Terry Hobbs – stepfather of Stevie Branch, a victim of the murders in West Memphis, Arkansas. Incredibly, Hobbs was apparently never even interviewed during the time of the murders! Honestly, all the films about the West Memphis 3 are good. There’s Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost series, which helps draw initial interest in second-guessing the case. There’s also the 2014 retelling called Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth (although the film is fictionalized, it’s ironically probably more truthful than the prosecution’s case ever was). By all means, check all of these films out!

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

2. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

Many people have heard of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, but Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer gets up close and personal with her life story, and the strangely complex case which brought her to death row. Though plot summaries mention Wuornos’ declining mental state as a chief talking point, it’s also interesting (and sometimes chilling) to see the woman’s past. We learn that, by all accounts, Wuornos was abused, ostracized, and even kicked out of her home. She even lived in the woods for an entire winter! Aileen’s mother is even interviewed at one point, though she offers little insight into what went wrong with Aileen Wuornos.

After years of being homeless and living as a prostitute, Aileen eventually became a serial killer. During her trial, filmmaker Nick Broomfield depicted her inadequate Defense Attorney in an earlier film, ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’, which is re-visited in this film. There are also allegations that the trial was tainted with book and movie deal offers, and it’s suggested that at least one of her murders may have been in genuine self-defense.

However, the biggest moments are when Wuornos is re-interviewed by Broomfield, where she stares at us with big, bulging eyes and angrily rants about her trial and the degradation of society. The suggestion is that, Aileen Wuornos may have been somewhat mentally ill, and therefore technically couldn’t have legally been executed (although that was her fate). In the end, it seems her life really was a tragic one, and she could have ended up a substantially different person had she lived under better circumstances. Either way, her case is an interesting one, and this documentary should be seen.

Credit: Channel 4 Television Corporation

1. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ fits neatly into a rare genre: the supernatural horror trial film. Though not highly acclaimed, ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ shows how a courtroom might tackle an attempted exorcism in which the “possessed” person dies. Although fictional, The Exorcism of Emily Rose draws inspiration from the real life exorcism case of Anneliese Michel. The performances here are rather phenomenal. First and foremost is Emily Rose herself, portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter. Though Carpenter’s better known for portraying Dexter Morgan’s sister Deb on the Showtime series Dexter, her performance here is considerably more incredible. It seems Carpenter brought everything she had into the role, and she totally owns the character.

Other performances are noteworthy, too. Laura Linney is fantastic as Erin Christine Bruner, who defends the Priest accused of the botched exorcism. What’s great about her is the ability to be subtle, while still giving her performance some emotional depth. It’s also interesting that she’s agnostic yet defends her client along religious cultural lines. Campbell Scott carries the role of Prosecutor Ethan Thomas – a man of faith determined to incarcerate the Priest through a purely rational defense. Last but not least, Tom Wilkinson battles evil as Father Richard Moore, who is more interested in telling Emily Rose’s story than actually avoiding prison.

The end result is not just a courtroom drama or a horror film, but a compelling mixture of the two, and a glimpse into different legal philosophies, issues regarding mental illness and treatment, and faith versus fact. One can simply say that there’s no other movie quite like it, and some of the possession moments ought to send shivers up your spine.

Credit: Screen Gems

Wade Wainio

3 Comments

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  3. Nice group. I’m glad you included Anatomy of a Murder. Have you seen “Nuts”?

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