Film List: Five classic courtroom dramas

In honor of the new legal drama The Judge, we take a look at five of the most beloved cinematic courtroom dramas in the history of the medium.

With The Judge coming to theaters this Friday, here are five courtroom films that can't be missed. Disclaimer: I have not seen all the courtroom films ever made, but of the ones I have seen, here are the five most worth mentioning. This list is in chronological order.

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

While James Stewart is remembered for other other crime dramas and another great courtroom film, Anatomy of Murder, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is what really put Stewart on the map and made him a star. What separates this film from traditional courtroom dramas is that it’s a political comedy. It has the same elements of the show House of Cards: corruption of government behind closed doors. The difference is instead of having the villainous Frank Underwood, you have the heroic Jefferson Smith.

Jefferson Smith is a naive man who is appointed to the U.S. Senate and begins to witness the dishonesty going on within it. When threatened, he does not back down.

The film is hilarious and you cannot help but laugh at the embarrassing moments that Smith goes through. It's an excellent portrayal of the rural outsider put in a metropolitan area, and it became the first of many. While it's comedic, its also inspiring to see how the inner strength of the wholesome Smith outweighs the manipulative body of Congress. And to think his gullibility would be his Achilles heel.

2. 12 Angry Men (1957)

This courtroom drama succeeds in many different departments for only having one setting: the jury room. That’s right — the whole film is set in one room for 96 minutes. Who could pull that off? Well, I suppose Sidney Lumet, director of Oscar-winning controversial pieces including Dog Day Afternoon and Network, can.

12 Angry Men is the story of one dissenting juror who slowly tries to convince the other jurors of a murder case that is not as simple as it seems.

With a brilliant script and 12 interesting characters that we can relate to as an audience, the film plays like black box theater. The versatility of the camerawork for one setting is brilliant at having such wide ranges of shots and intense close ups of the jurors’ faces.

More than anything, the film’s lead, Henry Fonda, does a masterful job of playing devil’s advocate and bringing up the notion that everyone has the right to a fair trial and that we shouldn't dismiss thoughts or ideas because of our own prejudices.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Based on the Harper Lee novel by the same name, this film deals with similar elements of prejudice and fairness as did 12 Angry Men.

This is the story of Atticus Finch, (Gregory Peck), a lawyer in the Depression-era south who decides to defend an African-American falsely accused of a rape charge. Also, it's a story of how Finch teaches his children about the harshness of discrimination, bigotry and racism.

We see the film through the children’s’ eyes, which is an interesting approach as it provides a sense of innocence being thrown into a harsh reality. But better yet, we witness one of the greatest courtroom scenes ever. Finch, facing overwhelming odds (as you can imagine) makes a captivating case for the defendant and delivers a speech with ferocious intensity to a community that snarls as he speaks.

This earned Peck an Oscar and Atticus Finch the No. 1 spot on the list of "Greatest Heroes” by the American Film Institute.

4. A Few Good Men (1992)

If there is a courtroom drama that makes you proud to feel American, it's this one.

With the screenplay smartly constructed by Syracuse University alum Aaron Sorkin, A Few Good Men is the story of military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee who defends two Marines accused of murder.

What’s cool about this film is you see three actors from consecutive decades give their performances, which are all well done: Jack Nicholson (Col. Nathan Jessup), the established actor who came to stardom in the 1970s; Tom Cruise (Lt. Daniel Kaffee), the young stud who has been paving his way since the '80s; and the new girl, Demi Moore (Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway), still raising eyebrows from audiences in the '90s.

While having these three performers carrying such weight would be enough for some directors, it wasn't enough for Rob Reiner. He adds three solid supporting actors with Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak and Kiefer Sutherland. This ensemble cast can take a bad script and make something out of it, but with Sorkin’s touch, you have a cinematic goldmine.

In the climatic court scene, Nicholson provides one of the greatest lines in cinema history: “You can’t handle the truth!” The American Film Institute numbered this quote 29th of all time.

A Few Good Men deconstructs what is at the soul of America’s military and what it means to have honor.

5. Philadelphia (1993)

This film couldn't have come during a better time. The AIDS scare reached the country in the 1980s and went into the '90s.

Stigmas were created. One was a fear that if you touched others with the HIV infection, which could turn into the disease that we know as AIDS, you would get it, too. Another was social, that certain lifestyles or groups were associated with HIV/AIDS automatically.

People with AIDS experienced ostracism and were treated like subjects, being quarantined or, in some cases, losing First Amendment rights they once had.

Coming off with an Oscar for Best Director for The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme picked up Philadelphia, a courtroom drama about Andrew Beckett, a man with AIDS who was fired from his law firm because of his condition.

What makes the story even more interesting is that he hires Joe Miller, a small-time lawyer who is the only one willing to take on the wrongful discharge. But, he is homophobic.

This makes for some great cinematic tension, and Miller has to step out of his comfort zone. Philadelphia triumphs not only because of the timely subject matter but because its two leads are Tom Hanks (Beckett) and Denzel Washington (Miller). Enough said.

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