Contrary to what you may have heard, the courtroom drama is alive and well.
We can all agree, the 1990s were the heyday of the legal thriller. John Grisham and Scott Turow were taking on weighty issues, stars were lining up for lawyer roles, and Hollywood producers couldn’t get courtrooms filmed fast enough. Defining the Golden Age as 1988-1998, this was the decade of Presumed Innocent, A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, Philadelphia, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, A Few Good Men, and many, many others, which we will soon be ranking in exhaustive and utterly scientific fashion.
But for now, we thought it important to dispel rumors of the genre’s demise. Hollywood still loves a good legal story. We scoured the last 20 years of legal films in order to find the 20 best specimens. In these hallowed halls you will find some of the most gifted thespians of the generation: Hopkins, Brannagh, Roberts, Swinton, Vin Diesel. You will find sweaty courtrooms, plush offices, ill-fitting suits, surly judges, guilty clients, innocent clients, important social issues and torrid affairs. All since 1998!
Now, some might argue that we’ve occasionally stretched the definition of a legal “thriller,” so let’s get this out of the way: if a lawyer, a legal proceeding, or a legal concept is at the center of a movie, and if that movie has more dramatic and/or thrilling moments than comedic and/or romantic moments (sorry, Legally Blonde, you deserved a spot in the top 5), then ipso facto, that movie is a legal thriller. Objection! Overruled.
Here they are, in a very specific order: the 20 best legal films of the last 20 years.
20. Reasonable Doubt (2014)
If you like plodding, convoluted courtroom dramas starring quality actors, and you well might, Reasonable Doubt is the movie for you. A young ADA in Chicago (Dominic Cooper) is involved in a DUI / hit-and-run, rushes away from the scene, and ends up prosecuting the man they picked up for the very same crime (Samuel L. Jackson), who may also be…a serial killer. Or something like that. Go ahead, try to make sense of it.
19. Shadow of Doubt (1998)
Right at the tail end of an epic run through 1990s cinema, Melanie Griffith went for a powerhouse role as a defense attorney struggling to figure out a years-long conspiracy, as old clients come out of the woodwork and pressure comes down from high places. It…doesn’t quite hold together as a performance, or as a film, but it’s still enjoyable enough, especially if you’re into the 1990s as a time period and you can put aside some of the more troubling sexual and racial politics at play here. (Remember, this was aiming to be an ‘important’ 90s movie.) Tom Berenger puts in solid work in a supporting role.
18. Devil’s Knot (2013)
What a difference a few years makes. A prestige project about the West Memphis Three starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, in 2018, would absolutely be a miniseries on HBO, received to great acclaim. In 2013, it was a mostly forgotten feature film with a minuscule release. In part, that’s because this movie wasn’t all that great. Witherspoon and Firth double down on some strange Memphis accents, and the whole project is a little heavy-handed, and doesn’t stand up too well against the better documentaries covering the trial and the satan ritual scare that briefly sent the region into a frenzy.
17. The Judge (2014)
Nobody was quite at the top of their game in The Judge, but even at half strength it’s hard to beat this cast, with Robert Downey, Jr. in the leading role as an attorney who goes back home to defend his father, the judge (Robert Duvall) now suspected of murder, and coincidentally reconnects with the standard old flame, played by Vera Farmiga. You’ll forget this one soon after you see it, and may well have already done so.
16. Changing Lanes (2002)
Ben Affleck + Samuel L. Jackson + a bunch of court proceedings + a missing file = a pretty decent movie. Affleck is a young hotshot attorney and Jackson is a man in the middle of a divorce who needs a break and a bank loan. They have a collision on the highway that throws both their lives into disarray, as they go increasingly ballistic on one another. There are some solid beratings from judges and senior partners, including Sidney Pollack, and Jackson schools Affleck in a few solid back-and-forth scenes. You won’t be telling your kids about the first time you saw Changing Lanes, but you probably won’t completely regret streaming it some rainy Saturday afternoon.
15. Find Me Guilty (2006)
What if I told you that in 2006 Sidney Lumet wrote and directed a legal comedy / drama based on a true story and starring Vin Diesel as a small-time Philadelphia gangster caught up in one of the biggest RICO cases ever brought in the US? You’d probably be surprised. And here’s an even bigger surprise: it’s actually pretty good! Diesel is in his element, playing Jackie DiNorscio, the man who decided to defend himself pro se and had some solid zingers, lifted straight out of some truly unusual court records.
14. Gingerbread Man (1998)
This one is a mostly forgotten Grisham adaptation done by none other than Robert Altman, who, as he did with Chandler’s classic The Long Goodbye, gave this noir-ish thriller his own particular twist, with unusual blockings, uncanny frames, and some searching conversation about the nature of justice, adultery, and all that other good stuff. The star of the show might well be Kenneth Branagh’s deep South accent, as he tries to convince family and colleagues that he didn’t cross an ethical line with his client in an elaborate scheme and cover-up.
13. You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
Barry Levinson’s 2010 Kevorkian biopic was, at the time, a big achievement for HBO, and still holds up as a nuanced take on a social issue still being sorted out in courts around the country. Pacino, of course, has the title role and steals just about every scene that’s there for the taking, doing some deep character work and not the Pacino caricature he sometimes falls into late career. The legal scenes are not the most compelling thing about this movie, but they still manage to show how courts grapple with difficult and intimate issues, and how publicity has come to play its own role in the staid halls of justice.
12. Double Jeopardy (1999)
This high-concept thriller features every two-bit wanna-be lawyer’s favorite get-out-jail-misunderstood legal concept: double jeopardy. Also, Ashley Judd, doing Ashley Judd things, which means the flick’s not half bad. Judd is duped by her adulterous husband, who fakes his own death and pins it on her. But, as one of Judd’s fellow ex cons explains to her, if she can get out of jail, she’ll have a free ticket to kill him, this time for real, because of “double jeopardy.” Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as the most proactive parole officer in history, who also happens to be, luckily enough, a former law professor.
11. Marshall (2017)
This 2017 drama about the early barnstorming days of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice, suffered some from indecision about what kind of movie it wanted to be: an historically aware important biopic or a swaggering legal drama. Viewed solely as a courtroom movie and a vehicle for Chadwick Boseman’s charisma, Marshall is a success. The movie occasionally stumbles over the broader historical significance of what the NAACP and Marshall were actually about, but that’s a tall order, and with any luck a few more movies will be made on Marshall’s life. And Boseman will star in them all.
10. Denial (2016)
A very dramatic rendition of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd, in which an American professor, Deborah Lipstadt, was sued for libel by a Holocaust denier she’d called out in various public forums, and who brought her to court in Britain, where she soon learns about some very important distinctions between libel law in the US and the UK. Rachel Weisz does an admirable job in the lead role, and the movie handles some provocative ideas with aplomb, but loses a few points for a sloppy presentation of legal concepts: presumption of innocence, freedom of speech, to name a few of the more important ones.
9. Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Matthew McConaughey is in the Legal Thrillers Hall of Fame, thanks to A Time to Kill, so right off the bat this 2011 Michael Connelly adaptation gets a crack at the top 10. The Lincoln Lawyer is a sleek neo-noir, an update on the Ross Macdonald broken family crime flick, but with a top dollar lawyer in the place of the private detective. This one is elevated by its supporting cast, which includes Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Bryan Cranston, and the one and only John Leguizamo. Come for the McConaughey, stay for the Leguizamo—just like you learned studying for the bar exam.
8. A Civil Action (1998)
To the extent A Civil Action is remembered, it’s mostly as part of the John Travolta renaissance. Travolta sure does chew up a lot of scenery, too. This is a big important legal movie, of the 1990s variety. But beneath the righteous shouting and legal peacocking is a thoughtful movie written by Steven Zaillian, which takes on the murky, morally ambiguous areas of the class action legal system, where clients and their own attorneys often have differing interests, and the system conspires to screw the little guy. The movie was criticized at the time for its lack of a satisfying ending. Certainly it’s not a perfectly told story, but you have to admire a movie that’s willing to take a different course than just about every other legal drama out there.
7. The Insider (1999)
Michael Mann’s follow-up to the epic (some might argue, over the top, even grotesque and/or wonderful) Heat was a legal thriller based on a Vanity Fair article based on a 60 Minutes segment based on some hardcore corporate chicanery. That’s a solid lineage, and the film sneaks in as a legal thriller thanks to the legal concept at the center of the action, which involves (not to get too spoiler-y) an attempt to use a deposition as a run-around on attorney-client privilege. This was, at heart, a Big Tobacco movie: from an era in the 90s when it looked like massive civil actions and brave whistleblowers working in coordination with semi-righteous journalists might actually fix some of our social ills. They…sort of did. The Insider has just the right quotient of legal insight and cynicism so that it doesn’t feel too dated. Corporate conspiracies are, it turns out, evergreen.
6. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) / (2015)
The 2009 Argentine/Spanish production, which had a limited but celebrated run in US theaters, would rank several notches higher if the lukewarm 2015 American remake hadn’t come along to drag it down. The original is a powerful look at a team of investigators who become obsessed with a missing woman and soon find themselves wading into a territory of deep national shame—an examination of Argentina’s Disappeared. The American version stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts and involves a mosque. Probably it’s not fair to stick these two together, since really they’re quite different movies, but for the sake of this arbitrary exercise, and because the 2015 version has elbowed the original out of most US streaming services, they’re stuck with each other. Final reminder, though: go watch the Oscar winner, starring Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil.
5. Fracture (2007)
If you were unaware that Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling faced off in a Hitchcockian neo-noir involving a perfect crime, a hotshot prosecutor working one last case before cashing in with a private firm, and some truly enviable interior design concepts, consider this your wakeup call. Fracture isn’t about, say, a perfectly plotted script, or redeemable characters, or defensible attitudes. It’s about two actors—an old lion and a young one—facing off in an enclosed space and getting angrier and angrier with each other, and also manipulating the law. Fracture is widely available on streaming services and you deserve it.
4. Runaway Jury (2003)
Underrated in the Grisham-adaptation-canon, possibly due to the ridiculous title, Runaway Jury is one of the more enjoyable legal thrillers you’ll come across, with the added benefit of being regularly available on streaming services. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz star as a pair of jury hustlers, infiltrating the panel in the year’s highest profile gun case, then offering to sell the verdict to either Dustin Hoffman for the plaintiff or Gene Hackman for the defense. Now, in my experience, jury consultants are more often akin to focus group managers, rather than the NSA-level operation Hackman is running, but it sure is fun to watch two great actors square off in the hotbox of a New Orleans courtroom. Extra props for the on-location shooting and the frequent, integral use of streetcars. This one rightfully has a place next to the 90s classics.
3. Erin Brockovich (2000)
When Erin Brockovich came out in 2000, this movie had it all: a defining performance from one of the era’s most magnetic actresses, a dynamite script based on a true story, and a director working at the height of his powers. Soderbergh can make dry paint entertaining, but with Brockovich he had real material. For those who need a refresher, Erin loses her own personal injury case, goes to work for her old attorney, and finds herself in the middle of a massive contaminated water / cancer class action case. Her story fills in an important piece of the American legal system—the confidence, sometimes misguided but what the hell, that a passionate layman can roll up his or her sleeves and solve a complicated legal case through sheer moxie. (A few states remain where laymen can practice law. God bless ‘em.) Brockovich feels like something of a timepiece, if only because so many of the people involved were massive and defining stars of a now almost bygone Hollywood era. But it holds up to re-watching now and serves as an effective antidote to some of the decade’s more buttoned-up legal dramas.
2. The Social Network (2010)
Finally, a movie about and structured around depositions. Also, the birth of social media, the century’s new class of corporate titans, the era of technology, America, the world, the fate of humankind. But mostly depositions. Aaron Sorkin’s favorite dramatic legal device is put to great dramatic use in his 2010 magnum opus, directed by David Fincher, scored by Trent Reznor, and best remembered for any of a dozen lines delivered by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and even Justin Timberlake. A deposition is a peculiar thing—a marathon session in which attorneys try out various strategies for locking a party into an inconvenient or downright calamitous version of events. Depositions alternate between between periods of tedium, aggressive verbal duels, and more tedium. Even the most gifted minds can crack under the pressure. They can be incredibly revealing events. In Sorkin’s version, Zuckerberg is unable to hide the disdain with which he holds most of the human race. The Social Network may not take place in the courtroom, but this is a legal thriller of the highest order. And don’t worry, it looks like Facebook is probably going to end up in a federal courtroom one of these days soon.
1. Michael Clayton (2007)
Tony Gilroy’s 2007 neo-noir legal thriller tops this list for several reasons, which we will enumerate because you made it this far into the article: (1) a script that’s both tightly packed and wildly ambitious, with a keen eye for the individual details and the big ideas teeming just under the surface; (2) the cast, which features George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson all working at the height of their powers; (3) the artful photography, awash in dusk and dawn grays; (4) the embrace of ambiguity and moral gray areas, the kind Hollywood is rarely comfortable trafficking in; (4) the sheer entertainment value; (5) that scene with the horses; (6) that scene with the baguettes; and (7) that scene in the taxi at the very end. Also, the legal world is captured perfectly. Michael is a “fixer” at a white-shoe firm in New York, but he doesn’t have any super powers. He just has a few connections with the NYPD and the DA. The firm’s office, the midnight closing sessions, the Midwestern motel deposition preps, even the cars the characters driven—they’re all pitch perfect. The film is damn enjoyable, but it’s also an ordeal, and like any good legal ordeal, it leaves everyone feeling just a little sullied. As the man said, “give me fifty dollars worth.”