Our pick of the 12 best court room dramas on film, from Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Fall to Saint Omer

Anatomy of a Fall (Picturehouse Entertainment)
Anatomy of a Fall (Picturehouse Entertainment)

Whether it’s the tension pulsating in the courtroom between the defendant, the prosecutor, the judge and the jurors – or the imminent result of the verdict, a good court room drama is always a thrilling watch.

The most recent, gripping entry into the genre is the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, Anatomy of a Fall, a legal drama about a woman attempting to prove her innocence after her husband falls to his death from the window of their home.

The Academy Award nominees were announced in January and Justine Triet's court room thriller scooped multiple nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing. Triet also received the César (the French national film awards) for Best Director, becoming only the second female filmmaker in its 49-year history to win, and the movie was awarded Best Film. German actor Sandra Hüller, who plays the leading role of accused novelist Sandra Voyter, is also in the running for Best Actress at the Oscars.

"This gorgeously poised mystery functions as a court procedural, a character study and a sly interrogation of the fact that female guilt can be assessed by likeability as much as by proof of criminal behaviour," said the Standard's review.

Anatomy of a Fall – which has also already won a Golden Globe and a Critic's Choice award – has reminded us that we love a good legal drama, and there have been so many good ones. So here’s our pick of 12 other incredible courtroom drama films, from 12 Angry Men to The Firm.

12 Angry Men (1957)

This American courtroom drama from American director Sidney Lumet is the classic courtroom drama, despite the drama unfolding in the room behind the actual court. Twelve jurors must decide the fate of a man who is accused of first degree murder. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if the man is found guilty he will be given a mandatory death sentence, so if any of the jurors have reasonable doubt, they must vote not guilty.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Another classic of the genre, Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer. One day a woman gets in touch to ask him to defend her husband, US Army Lieutenant Manny Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has been arrested for murder of an innkeeper. Not only does Manion not deny the murder, but he also accuses the innkeeper of raping his wife. Despite the difficulties of the case, Paul Biegler agrees to defend him, and all the drama plays out in a gripping court case. Picking up seven Oscar nominations, Criterion Collection describes Anatomy of a Murder as “an American movie landmark”.

Jagged Edge (1985)

Jagged Edge’s Eighties shoulder pads, puffy hair and a synth-based backing track don’t make this film any less terrifying. When socialite Paige Forrester is brutally murdered with a hunting knife, attention immediately turns to her husband, Jack (Jeff Bridges), who stands to inherit his wife’s fortune. He hires one of the city’s top lawyers, Teddy (Glenn Close) who reluctantly joins the case at the request of her boss.

A Few Good Men (1992)

Aaron Sorkin adapted his own 1989 play for this Rob Reiner-directed legal drama. Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is a military lawyer who has a reputation for seeking plea bargains. This time he takes on the case of two U.S. Marines, who have been accused of murdering a colleague. Following the advice of Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) Kaffee starts to suspect that the two Marines were carrying out orders from one their superiors, and he quickly gets sucked into a conspiracy. Jack Nicholson also stars.

The Firm (1993)

We’ve tried to limit the number of John Grisham adaptations on this list; there could have been as many as seven. The Firm is probably the best of the bunch, with some scenes impossible to get out of your head. Tom Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, a super talented young lawyer who has just graduated at the top of the class from Harvard Law School. He has his pick of law firms to enter and chooses Bendini, Lambert & Locke in Tennessee because they make an extremely generous offer. However, almost as soon as he shows up, things seem off. The firm is very big on loyalty, Mitch is blackmailed and FBI agents get involved. Things quickly spiral out of control.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

On October 5, 1974, two IRA bombs exploded in pubs in Guildford – one civilian and four off-duty British soldiers died, and 65 people were wounded. In the aftermath, four young men, the youngest of whom was 17 years old, were falsely arrested and sentenced to decades in prison. In the Name of the Father follows the trial and stars Emma Thompson as Gareth Peirce, a solicitor and human rights activist, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the accused men.

Primal Fear (1996)

When the head of Chicago’s Catholic diocese, Archbishop Rushman, is stabbed and mutilated, it is 19-year-old Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) who is arrested for the murder. The former altar boy was seen fleeing the crime scene covered in blood. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) decides to take his case pro bono (for free), while his ex-girlfriend, Janet Venable (Laura Linney) stands for the prosecution. It quickly becomes clear that Archbishop Rushman had some sinister habits, while Aaron is grappling with a personality disorder which starts to change Martin’s defence approach.

Legally Blonde (2001)

A legal drama with a slightly different tone, Legally Blonde is about a fashion merchandising student, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) who decides to apply to Harvard Law School after her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, dumps her to attend the elite university programme. Against the unlikely odds, and despite a unique entry application, Elle succeeds, and it turns out that’s she’s a better lawyer than anyone expected.

Fracture (2007)

Anthony Hopkins has spent his career playing spine-chilling, highly intelligent criminals and in Fracture it’s no different. Jennifer Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) is shot in the head with a single bullet, and her husband, Ted (Hopkins) is arrested for the attempted murder. Security cameras around the property show that no one else entered or exited the house, plus, he confesses to the crime. It looks like an open-and-shut case, so lawyer William “Willy” Beachum (Ryan Gosling) who is about to make the switch from criminal to corporate law, agrees to come on board as prosecutor. But everything starts to unravel: the policeman who arrested Ted was Jennifer’s lover, so the confession is defunct, and the murder weapon can’t be found anywhere. Rosamund Pike also stars.

Just Mercy (2019)

Set in the Eighties, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a talented young defense attorney who, after graduating from Harvard, goes on to represent people on Death Row in Alabama. The film, which is based on the 2014 memoir of the real Stevenson (who is now a well-known social justice activist) follows one of his cases. Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) has been given a death sentence for murdering a young woman, but there is evidence which seems to prove his innocence.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Written and directed by TV mastermind Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is based on the real trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters who were charged with conspiracy in 1969. The Standard called it a “timely drama”. Others agreed, with the film picking up six Oscar nominations in 2020. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Strong were just a few of the actors who made up the starry cast.

Saint Omer (2023)

Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a pregnant literature professor who goes to watch a trial about a woman who leaves her baby on the beach to be swept away into the sea. Rama plans to write about the case, but she quickly starts to feel a connection with the woman on trial: Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is also in a mixed-race couple, also has a complicated relationship with her Senegalese mother, and also often feels isolated.

The Standard loved it saying, “of course Oscar voters ignored it, it’s a masterpiece about black women.” This exquisite film from French director Alice Diop is still in cinemas now, so if you get the opportunity you should try and see it while it’s still on the big screen.