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Ten Great Lawyer Movies

Updated on March 18, 2011

American Film Institute's Picks ... and mine


The American Film Institute's recent television special listed it's Top Ten Courtroom Drama movies. Nine of their ten made perfect sense for the category, but one of their choices for top "Courtroom Drama" was Kramer vs. Kramer. Now, KvK is a great film, and one I've already covered in another column (click here to see more on KvK). But categorized as a "courtroom drama"? That AFI decision sparked my interest to highlight a selection of lawyer plots, characters, etc.

Movies about lawyers, about lawsuits, the good and the bad...which is which, sitting at tables parallel and equal before a judge, a jury ... is there anything more patriotic, more totally USA, than getting all engrossed in a lawyer flick? Our court system, the concepts of justice, due process, protecting-the-rights-of-society prosecutors, the filled-with-hope valor parallel to the creeps-slipping -through-loopholes of USA's innocent-until-proven-guilty code, a viable defense, the most ethical and upright of judges, indisputable evidence, reliable witnesses -- or not ... corruption within any of these elements brings down the delicate system and makes for great plots, great characters, great suspense, great faith in our system! Hope all movie buffs enjoy!

First, here are AFI's selected Top Ten Courtroom Dramas. Just a list here, as you can get all the details you want at

10. Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961

9. A Cry in the Dark, 1988

8. In Cold Blood, 1967

7. Anatomy of a Murder, 1959

6. Witness for the Prosecution, 1957

5. A Few Good Men, 1992

4. The Verdict, 1992

3. Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979

2. 12 Angry Men, 1957

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962



Military Lawyer, Tom Cruise, grilling a witness in 'A Few Good Men' from 1992

Kevin Bacon, background, just one of great supporting cast.
Kevin Bacon, background, just one of great supporting cast.

Great films about lawyers, lawsuits, the whole legal side of life

Now, AFI has had it's say...but I say...if Kramer vs. Kramer is one of their picks..then that opens up the doors to a whole lot of movies where court decisions are crucial, but truly account for minimal moments on film. For that case, The Verdict starring Paul Newman would also fall into this category, oh, would To Kill a Mockingbird, so would A Few Good Men,, what gives? many minutes of a two hour film need to be literally in the courtroom to qualify as a "courtroom drama"? Maybe AFI's label of "courtroom drama" is where they went wrong...that's why this hub is titled "legal movies."

"A Few Good Men" airs on TBS on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010, at 9PM and again at Midnight.

Paul Newman stars in The 'Verdict'

Vulnerable victims, passionate prosecutors, determined defenders

So, in no order of great, good, mediocre...all ten have wonderful legal moments, most are dramas...but there is one romantic/comedy legal movie included. Two are based on true events. All are 'legal' films that shouldn't go forgotten:

10. The Rain Maker. 1997 (Same year as Damon's Good Will Hunting).Based on a John Grisham novel, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and a stunning achievement for Matt Damon. According to, the movie's tag line was "They were totally unqualified to try the case of a lifetime... but every underdog has his day." Imagine every family's worst financial/emotional nightmare when a huge health insurance company decides your son's life is not worth the expense. Claire Dane's and (Oklahoma's own) Mary Kay Place were great female additions to this strong male cast.

Matt Damon as determined but doubting young attorney

A totally different side of Damon than 1997's 'Good Will Hunting'
A totally different side of Damon than 1997's 'Good Will Hunting'

A look at 'The Rainmaker'

Oil profits, corrupt corporations ... and Julia Roberts

9. The Pelican Brief. 1993. Another gripping legal movie based on a John Grisham novel. Great roles for Denzel Washington (as journalist) and Julia Roberts (as law student). No courtroom scenes but centers around truly evil capitalists (oil gazillionaires) who believe they can manipulate the President (Robert Culp) and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Anyone that gets in their way... Trivia: Small role for Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon.

8. Erin Brokovich. 2000. Another vehicle for Julia Roberts. Seven years after "Pelican Brief" she's playing a single mom with three kids. Lots of reasons to be on a great lawyer movie list. Julia Roberts as a diligent but somewhat renegade-tactics legal researcher, Albert Finney as the stressed out, by-the-book litigator. One reason this movie intrigues is that it's based on the true events when a small town (Hinkley, CA) took on a huge utility corporation. Roberts earned Best Actress Academy Award for this one.

Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in 'Erin Brokovich'

7. Legal Eagles. 1986. Romantic-comedy legal movie. With cute casting of Robert Redford and Debra Winger, a sensual doe-eyed blond-to-the-max Darryl Hannah, barrel-chested Brian Dennehy, great location shots of New York City, fun flashbacks to the late 60s plus the glittery milieu of art galleries, and you've got a pretty decent suspense-comedy legal movie. Worth remembering if only because not that many legal flicks qualify as romantic-comedy...and, hello? stars Robert Redford!

Debra Winger, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah
Debra Winger, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah

Irons as suave but suspicious husband

'Suspect'...Cher and Quaid

Attorneys for the defense, quite an assortment

6. Reversal of Fortune. 1990. Another true story and one that had made lots of society headlines. Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close), a hugely wealthy heiress, winds up in a coma and her husband, Claus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) winds up looking very suspicious. So suspicious that he's convicted of attempted murder and tracks down the best attorney he can find for his appeal. Cue Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz, playing the polar opposite of the full-out WASP, Hamptons mansions, international jet-set kavorting, Upper East Side Manhattan Von Bulows. Great look at the massive preparation involved to research "the law" and fascinating portrayal of a defensive attorneys' focus on "the law" rather than on his client's guilt or innocence. Based on Dershowitz's own book about this case. Trivia: Christine Baranski in full-out 80s attire in small role. And Felicity Huffman as law student clerking for Dershowitz.

(Trivia. Irons was approached to star as Hannibal Lector in "Silence of the Lambs" but chose not to because he didn't want two bad-guy roles back to back. Who knows? Maybe he'd have Anthony Hopkins' Oscar?  Or have the career that Hopkins has had since 'Lambs')

5. Suspect. 1987. Cher as a over-worked federal employee. Is there such a thing? But she pulls it off looking stressed, and worn out, but dedicated to yet another "gotta be guilty" indigent client. Trivia: Liam Neeson like you've never seen him...the client. Dennis Quaid plays a juror who's far too curious and starts investigating the case on his own after hours. Great Washington DC shots and lots of insider tidbits about senators, lobbyists, the halls of power. More Trivia: John Mahoney (the dad on 'Fraser') as the judge.

Four more selections...

Be watching for part two of this hub....with four more selections and lots of trivia and runners-up for 'lawyer movies.' Teasers: Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, George Clooney and John Travolta will be included.

It's here!... Part Two....follow link at bottom of this hub to check out the rest of my Top Legal Movies.

And more courtroom selections and upcoming TV showings

Wanted to acknowledge fellow-hubber, JamesRay, who has written a courtroom hub he calls "Top 5 Courtroom Dramas"...his selections are Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict, 12 Angry Men, Primal Fear, and And Justice For All. His runners-up include My Cousin Vinny, A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, Witness for the Prosecution and Judgement at Nuremberg.

Join in and vote for your favorite

Which is your favorite legal movie here?

See results

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