The American Bar Association's list
In 1989, the American Bar Association rated the twelve best trial films of all time, and provided a detailed and reasoned legal evaluation for its choices. Ten of them are in English; M is in German and The Passion of Joan of Arc is a French silent film. The films on the ABA Journal list are here listed in alphabetical order:
- 12 Angry Men (1957)
- Nominated for 3 Academy Awards. (AFI)
- A Man for All Seasons (1966)
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
- Nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
- Based on a real trial. (AFI)
- Inherit the Wind (1960)
- Nominated for 4 Academy Awards.
- Based on a real trial.
- Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
- Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 2.
- Based on a real trial.
- Based on a real trial.
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
- Based on a real trial.
- Based on a real trial.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
- Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 3. (AFI)
- The Verdict (1982)
- Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. (AFI)
Ten of the movies take place (at least in part) in courtrooms.
The American Bar Association also published a list of the 12 best trial plays, noting that the transition from film to the stage is sometimes difficult. It also has an extensive honorable mention list.
The trial in M is not in a legal courtroom. Instead, the city's crime syndicate leaders and underground elements hold proceedings in a warehouse. Despite the lack of legal trappings, "it is one of the most effective trials ever filmed, questioning our notions of justice and revenge, mob rule and order, power and responsibility. Our social orientation is flip-flopped." Wearing long leather coats instead of robes, criminals become judges. The murderer is cast as the victim, while the forces of law and order must rely on luck. Peter Lorre strikingly raises the issue of his culpability due to alleged insanity, and the imposition of ultimate retributive justice is depicted as being unsatisfying for society and the survivors of the murdered victims.
Outside of the first few minutes of the film, Twelve Angry Men never enters a court room at all. It views the particular case and the system of justice through the prism of a jury's deliberations. The film explains practical explications of legal concepts basic to the American system of justice, and their effect on a particular trial and defendant. Those include the presumption of innocence, burden of proof and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
American Film Institute
The American Film Institute recently compiled its own "courtroom drama" ten best list. It includes five of the films on the ABA list, and adds: A Cry in the Dark, A Few Good Men, In Cold Blood, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Witness for the Prosecution.
Military trial films
Military trial films typically include conflicting questions of loyalty, command responsibility, ethical rules and rules of engagement, obedience to superior authority, politics and class conflict. War and trials are good foils for one another. The struggles are perennial and engaging. A partial list includes:
- The Caine Mutiny (1954), climaxes in a strongly contested court martial, and a particularly dynamic cross examination, in which Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, acts out one of film's most dramatic meltdowns. The movie was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
- Paths of Glory (1957), black and white depiction of a corrupt World War I French court martial leading to a firing squad, and a futility of war conclusion. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starred Kirk Douglas as the failed defense attorney.
- Town Without Pity (1961), Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington were nominated for an Academy Award for the theme song, Town Without Pity, which was sung by Gene Pitney
- King and Country (1964), directed by Joseph Losey. In the trenches in France during World War 1, British captain Dirk Bogarde has to defend shell-shocked private Tom Courtenay, who is charged with desertion.
- Breaker Morant (1980), (nominated for an Academy Award), a gripping court martial of Australian soldiers, including Harry Breaker Morant by their British commanders in the aftermath of the Boer War in South Africa. Breaker Morant details the trials and tribulations of the defense counsel and the defendants, as they try to throw a wrench into the administrative gears of the court martial. Anticipating the Nuremberg trials and the "defense of superior orders", the soldiers' main defense is that they were doing their duty as they understood it, and following orders and policy from above. Nevertheless, this "Kangaroo court" moves to its inevitable conclusion. As one review notes, it features one of the finest (and most succinct) closing arguments in film.
- A Few Good Men (1992), released after the ABA's list was compiled, contains the famous "You can't handle the truth" exchange. The film was adapted from the Broadway play written by Aaron Sorkin, and acted by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.
- Rules of Engagement (2000), in which Marine Colonel Terry Childers, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is brought to court-martial on charges of disobeying the rules of engagement in a military incident at an American embassy in Yemen, with flashbacks to Vietnam.
- The Address (2011) is an Indian film based on Soorya Krishna Moorthy's stage play of the same name, which itself was based on the play Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak.
- High Crimes is a 2002 American thriller film directed by Carl Franklin and starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. The screenplay by Yuri Zeltser and Grace Cary Bickley is based on a novel by Joseph Finder.
- Shaurya (2008), is an Indian film directed by Samar Khan starring Rahul Bose and Kay Kay Menon in lead roles. The film is based on the backdrop of Kashmir conflict
Religious trial films
- Jesus Christ (played by Jim Caviezel) in The Passion of the Christ is alternately tried by Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate and ultimately executed by Pilate. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) features Walter Huston as the Devil arguing for a man's soul. Huston was nominated for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award.
- The famous Judgment of Solomon from the Bible is portrayed in Solomon and Sheba.
- The Man Who Sued God (2001), an Australian film starring Billy Connolly who takes God (represented by the church) to court for compensation over the destruction of his fishing boat due to "an Act of God".
- Inherit the Wind (1960), an American film set in a small religious town. A teacher begins to teach evolution, and goes to court for his right to teach evolution. starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a 2005 American courtroom drama horror film directed by Scott Derrickson. The film is loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel and follows a self-proclaimed agnostic defense lawyer representing a parish priest who is accused by the state of negligent homicide after he performed an exorcism. The film, which largely takes place in a courtroom, depicts the events leading up to and including the exorcism through flashbacks.
- The Crucible is a 1996 drama film written by Arthur Miller and based on his play of the same name. Both the play and film are based loosely on the Salem witch trials. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner and stars Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor, Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, Paul Scofield as Judge Thomas Danforth, and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor.
- Even though courtroom movies are mostly dramas, My Cousin Vinny, a comedy, resulted in Marisa Tomei winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
- Marathi film Kaydya cha Bola (कायद्याच बोला) based on My Cousin Vinny is also comedy/ social courtroom movie.
- Norman Jewison's ...And Justice for All, nominated for 2 Academy Awards, examines the flawed and human, venal and immoral side of justice, focusing on all-too-human judges. As Norman Webster wrote: "...And Justice For All is a sweeping – and somewhat simple-minded – indictment of the American justice system." The film can be seen from the perspective of Judicial Qualifications Commissions (also known as Judicial Tenure Commissions), which are judicial agencies charged with overseeing judicial performance and conduct. From that end of the telescope, the indictment of the courts and judicial system (and the examples) are not so outlandish as might be supposed. Starred Al Pacino, Jack Warden, and John Forsythe.
- Amistad is a 1997 historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the true story of an uprising in 1839 by newly captured African slaves that took place aboard the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, the subsequent voyage to the northeastern United States, and the legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It was nominated for four Academy Awards.
- The Ox-Bow Incident, unusual in that the trial does not take place in a formal court room. Directed by William A. Wellman, and starring Henry Fonda (who also starred in Twelve Angry Men).
- Nominated for Best Picture Oscar in 1943.
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957), directed by Billy Wilder from a short story and play by Agatha Christie, and starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich.
- Nominated for 6 Academy Awards.
- A Time to Kill a 1996 feature film adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 legal thriller of the same name.
- The Client a 1994 American legal thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, and starring Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Renfro in his film debut. It is based on the novel of the same name by John Grisham. The film was released in the United States on July 20, 1994. The movie features an all star cast. Sarandon nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and won a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
- Primal Fear a 1996 motion picture directed by Gregory Hoblit, which tells a story of a defense attorney (Richard Gere) who defends an altar boy (Edward Norton) charged with the murder of a Catholic archbishop. The movie is an adaptation of William Diehl's novel. Norton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his career-launching role.
- A Civil Action is a 1998 film starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall for which Duvall was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film was based on the 1996 nonfiction novel of the same name.
- In Miracle on 34th Street Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) has his sanity examined at a hearing. The film won 4 Academy Awards, with Gwenn winning for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was also nominated for Best Picture.
- ISBN 978-0-7407-5460-9; ISBN 0-8362-1035-2; ISBN 978-0-8362-1035-4.
- ISBN 978-0-631-22816-5
- (includes a section on movies about lawyers)
- Internet Movie Database, which brings a worldwide perspective, but also lumps in some movies that do not quickly come to mind as "trial movies".