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Best Legal Movies of All Time

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


January 17, 2019

by Josh Taylor

Awards Season is upon us, and we at Smokeball are nothing if not huge movie buffs.  We thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best, most award-winning legal movies.  While other lists may differ, we’ve settled on these as the best legal movies of all time. These are the movies with jaw-dropping performances, writing, and direction that makes us dry our eyes and grip our seats.  The list also includes some fun facts sure to put you in the lead at your firm’s next trip to team trivia! Check out our Top Ten, and tell us if we’ve missed any of your favorites.

10.  Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep – enough said.  This movie dove deep into the ugliness of divorce and its impact on children.  Riveting court hearing scenes will make you cringe and cry, as the impact of a contentious custody battle hits hard.  The movie won both Hoffman and Streep their first Academy Awards, Hoffman for Best Actor and Streep for Best Supporting Actress.  It also won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, one of only a handful of films to win in all those major categories.  Prior to the Oscars, the film picked up four Golden Globes.

Kramer vs. Kramer is perhaps the ultimate family law movie.  Smokeball is the ultimate family law software.

9.  A Time To Kill (1996)

While not swimming in Oscars like some of the other films on this list, one cannot put together a legal movies list without a film adaptation of a John Grisham novel.  The film did earn Samuel L. Jackson a Golden Globe nomination, but its true worth is in the depth of its bench, with pre-Oscar Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Chris Cooper, and the incomparable Brenda Fricker (Oscar winner for My Left Foot, and “bird lady” in Home Alone).  The film is an important commentary on race and the legal system in the deep south and tackles difficult themes.  Roger Ebert labeled it the best film version of a Grisham novel at that time.

8.  My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Who can forget a mint green Buick convertible and a burgundy prom-style suit?  My Cousin Vinny is forever cemented as perhaps the top legal comedy of all time.  For this author, it also served as a case study in Legal Ethics class in law school.  The film revolves around an inexperienced personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn, deftly played by Joe Pesci, representing his cousin and cousin’s friend in a murder trial.  Of course, hilarity ensues. Upon its release, the film received mixed critical reception, with Roger Ebert giving it 2.5/4 stars.  

The film’s director, Jonathan Lynn, knew what he was talking about after receiving his law degree from Cambridge University.  The film has been praised by judges and law school professors alike for illustrating real world legal and procedural issues. Lynn acknowledge an anti-death penalty message in the film.  One of the hardest things for a comedic performance to achieve, Marisa Tomei won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Vinny’s fiancé.

My Cousin Vinny is the ultimate legal comedy with a mix of both criminal and personal injury law.  Smokeball is the best software on the market for both criminal lawyers and personal injury law firms.

7.  A Few Good Men (1992)

Released the same year as My Cousin Vinny, this movie gave audiences an inside look at JAG court-martial proceedings.  Two officers are accused of killing another Marine at Guantanamo Bay, and Tom Cruise and Demi Moore are sent in to see just how far up the ladder the orders resulting in the death come from.  Besides a slate of the best actors of the time, the film boasts Rob Reiner as director and Aaron Sorkin’s immortal words shouted by Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth!” The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson’s chilling Colonel Nathan Jessup.  It was also nominated in five major Golden Globe categories. The movie is based on Sorkin’s play by the same name.

6.  Michael Clayton (2007)

Tony Gilroy wrote and directed this “fixer” masterpiece that shed light on the underbelly, fictional or not, of big business and BigLaw.  George Clooney plays the titular character, a lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm tasked with cleaning up the firm and its clients’ messes.  Denzel Washington turned down the role, and said he later regretted the decision. The film circles possession of billion-dollar agricultural company U-North’s confidential document linking it to known production of carcinogenic weed killer, with twists, turns, and hired hitmen.  The film is often insular, confining, and fast-paced, intentionally mirroring the world of New York BigLaw. The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including in most major acting categories. The chameleonic Tilda Swinton walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her creepily corporate portrayal of U-North’s General Counsel.

Michael Clayton lives in a world of corporate and civil law.  So does Smokeball! Check out everything Smokeball offers as a top business law software.

5.  A Cry In The Dark (a/k/a Evil Angels) (1988)

The Streep train keeps rolling on this list, with Meryl making a second appearance with this Australian trial drama.  Streep’s acting partner this time was Sam Neill, who would go on to pop-culture fame in the U.S. as Steven Spielberg’s lead in Jurassic Park, playing pastor Michael Chamberlain.  The film follows the trial of Chamberlain’s wife, Lindy, after their baby goes missing during a trip in the Australian Outback. The movie highlights how public opinion and perception can shape criminal proceedings.  It also boasts another of the most famous lines in movie history, with Lindy proclaiming, “the dingo took my baby.” Streep was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and took home the same award at Cannes. The movie retained the book’s name, Evil Angels, in Australia and New Zealand, but was retitled for release elsewhere.

A Cry In The Dark delivers hard-hitting trial drama from Australia.  See how Smokeball’s Australian roots have made a terrific mark on law practice management in the US!

4.  12 Angry Men (1957)

Hollywood patriarch Henry Fonda leads this peek through the keyhole of a jury deliberation room.  Famously, the film explores the “jury of peers” and shows how regular people grapple with evidentiary standards, witness believability, and the juror’s role in the judicial system.  The film received wide critical acclaim upon its release, and the American Film Institute has named it to several of its Top 100 lists. The movie was nominated for several Oscars including Best Director for Sidney Lumet and Best Picture.  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated in 2010 that seeing 12 Angry Men influenced her decision to pursue a legal career.

3.  Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Otto Preminger’s film adopted the novel by the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (writing as “Robert Traver”) about a murder case in which he was defense counsel.  While the story revolves around a murder trial, other legal implications and themes permeate the story. The film is James Stuart at the height of his powers after four previous Best Actor Oscar nominations with one win (for The Philadelphia Story).  It earned him his fifth and final Best Actor nomination in 1960.  George C. Scott also appears in the film ten years before his famous Oscar win for Patton, which he declined to accept.

2.  Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia is both an acting tour de force and a deeply moving story of right, wrong, and standing up for good no matter your personal or political views.  The story covers the career, AIDS battle, and firing of talented lawyer Andrew Beckett from a large Philadelphia law firm, and Beckett’s lawsuit against his former firm.  The film brought together the best of acting and directing, with Jonathan Demme, fresh off a Best Director Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, directing, Denzel Washington, having already won an Oscar in 1989 for Glory, portraying Beckett’s lawyer grappling with his personal feelings about Beckett’s sexual orientation, and Tom Hanks, who won the first of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, portraying Beckett.  The film garnered a total of five Academy Award and three Golden Globe nominations, with Hanks named Best Actor at both and Bruce Springsteen winning at both for his original song “Streets of Philadelphia”.

 1.  To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

It took almost no time at all for Harper Lee’s novel, published in 1960 and a staple in almost every high school English class even today, to be put on the big screen.  And who other to portray the righteous and always-teaching lawyer and father Atticus Finch than Gregory Peck. A story of race, justice, and injustice, To Kill A Mockingbird sits on many lists of the best movies of all time and is a part of the National Film Registry.  The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actor for Peck who beat out Peter O’Toole; Lawrence of Arabia did however beat the film for Best Picture.  Mockingbird also took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – not bad for an extremely short turnaround from book publication to movie release.  Peck also took home the Golden Globe for Best Actor. The film also marked the movie debut for future Oscar and Golden Globe winner Robert Duvall.

To Kill A Mockingbird’s screenwriter, Horton Foote, won an Oscar after efficiently writing a tremendous script in almost no time.  Create standard legal documents efficiently and in almost no time every day with Smokeball’s legal document automation!

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