Courtroom movies embody many of our favorite mystery and thriller elements. Some share the story of a murder mystery, the details of which are gradually revealed through testimony and physical evidence. Some are dramatic legal thrillers that expose the shortcomings in our justice system. Still others have the quirky feel of a cozy mystery, wherein you can rest assured there will be no loose ends.
Today, we’re sharing the best courtroom movies to suit every kind of mood. From dramas that make you white-knuckle the remote to hilarious hijinks that play out in the courtroom, these entertaining movies are waiting to be watched over and over again.
My Cousin Vinny
This classic 1992 comedy hinges on two college students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. While traveling through Alabama, Bill and Stan accidentally shoplift from a convenience store. They later learn the clerk was shot during a botched robbery shortly after they left the store and are arrested for the crime. The prosecution builds a case based on circumstantial evidence and a misconstrued confession, leading Bill to hire his cousin Vinny to be their criminal defense lawyer.
There’s just one problem—well, a couple actually. Vinny is a personal injury lawyer, he’s never taken a trial case, and he passed the bar only after multiple failed attempts. My Cousin Vinny has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 86%, and Marisa Tomei won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Vinny’s fiancée. As an extra bonus, the film has been praised by real attorneys for its accurate depiction of the court and judicial systems.
Matt Damon stars as a recent law graduate in this 1997 film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Without a high-powered job lined up, Rudy Baylor falls in with an ambulance chaser who hires him as an associate. In his biggest case, Rudy sues an insurance carrier on behalf of a couple whose 22-year-old son is dying of leukemia.
The young man could have been saved with a bone marrow transplant, but the insurance wouldn’t cover it. This legal drama film exposes the deadly flaws in our healthcare system—a discussion that’s just as relevant more than two decades later—and other systemic problems such as domestic violence and the way it’s handled in court.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Reenacting the twists and turns of the real-life trial of the Chicago 7, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters who were arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, this 2020 film nabbed six nominations at the Academy Awards. This is another film that sadly has many parallels to today, including discussions about racial injustice, police brutality, and the constitutional rights of citizens. It’s well worth a watch for those who are interested in a hyper-realistic courtroom film, even though some developments are so outrageous that you’ll wish this wasn’t based on a true story.
Julia Roberts stars as the eponymous Erin Brokovich, who in real life managed to build a successful case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company despite lacking any legal experience. For 14 years, the company contaminated the drinking water in the small town of Hinkley, California, by dumping chromium-tainted wastewater into nearby bodies of water. Erin Brokovich wouldn't rest until the corporation paid its due diligence. This is a satisfying movie depicting triumph over adversity and justice served.
If you’re on the hunt for something dark and thrilling, then queue up Primal Fear. Richard Gere stars as a defense attorney whose latest case has been drawing some sensational attention from the media: a 19-year-old altar boy has been accused of killing a beloved Catholic archbishop. Gere isn’t buying it, and is determined to find out what really happened. This one has some stunning twists in store, delivered just when you think you have a solid grasp on the narrative.
Another courtroom film with eerie parallels to today, Denial explores truth, propaganda, free speech, and how these are handled by the legal system. This is also a biographical film based on Deborah Lipstadt’s 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar who is being sued for libel in a British court by a writer who she’s previously called a Holocaust denier. Since the burden is on the accused for libel cases in the UK, Lipstadt begins putting together evidence to prove that the Holocaust really happened and the insidious ways in which the plaintiff is trying to undermine that historical evidence.