The Ten Best Law Movies of all Time


1. The Ten Best
2. The Failure of a New System
3. The Scientific Method

1. The Ten Best

Some people just list movies they like. So amateur. I have, instead, used a complex scientific formula that gives independent weight to seven critical features: acting, story, direction, courtroom scenes, air of reality, transcendent legal principles, and degree of hotness of actors. Each is scored out of ten. A perfect law movie would have 70. This is a copyrighted system. You can try it at home but please be very, very careful. It is not for the faint of heart. This is science.

In reverse order:

Acting (5): The brilliant Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for best Supporting Actress... but this is balanced by Ralph Macchio really sucking the life out of every scene in which he creepily appears.

Story (6): Good, crisp, funny, never insults the intelligence of the viewer.

Direction (4): Couldn't tell you who directed it. But the movie never lags. Funny is harder than serious. Kudos.

Courtroom Scenes (8): How can you top Everything this guys says is bullshit, thank-you and the almost perfect hostile expert witness scene.

Air of Reality (5): Obvious the plot is sheer farce, but anyone who has ever litigated has been, in one way or another, a version of Joe Pesci's character. Not quite ready, awkward, arrogant determined to do it on our own, and lucky. And often poorly dressed: I once conducted a preliminary inquiry in mismatched shoes.

Transcendent Legal Principles (3): When in doubt, call your girlfriend to the stand.

Hotness of Actors (10): Joe Pesci is not my cup of tea, but are you kidding me?

Acting (4): Tom Cruise, underactor, meet Jack Nicholson, overactor, meet Demi Moore, non-actor.

Story (7): A young Aaron Sorkin. "I'm going to rip out your eyes and piss in your dead skull." Great stuff.

Direction (7): Rob Reiner kept the pot from boiling over - barely.

Courtroom Scenes (8): Iconic.

Air of Reality (5): Tom Cruise is a snotty little bastard (see clip above) but real witnesses are lousy speechmakers.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): "Deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall." (see clip above)

Hotness of Actors (5): There is a principle called the Kevin Bacon hotness drag co-efficient that casts a pall on all other actors. And then there is this.

Acting (6): Gregory Peck does almost all of the heavy lifting. Extra points for a young, hirsute Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.

Story (7): Horton Foote was one of the greatest screen writers of his time. The source material was pretty good too. But there are some passages that clunk.

Direction (5): A little heavy-handed.

Courtroom Scenes (7): A little strained in hindsight, but this is a great scene.

Air of Reality (5): In real life, the mob would have pushed Atticus aside and lynched Tom Robinson. And what the hell is a chiffarobe?

Transcendent Legal Principles (8): Justice is both universal and colour-blind.

Hotness of Actors (7): Again, Gregory Peck does the heavy lifting. If only I could wear a white suit like that.

Acting (7): Gene Kelly. Spencer Tracy. Frederick March. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Story (7): Funny, serious, lively and important. "I am more interested in the rock of ages than in the age of rocks."

Direction (7): Stanly Kramer. One of the greats.

Courtroom Scenes (7): The story is complex and nuanced and unfolds primarily in the courtroom. There are some brilliant passages that are as relevant today as they were in 1960. It should be required watching for all Americans.

Air of Reality (6): Based on a real case tried by William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow.

Transcendent Legal Principles (8): Freedom of Expression.

Hotness of Actors (4): If you like Spencer Tracy....

Acting (8): Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown and a whole lot of men with odd accents handlebar moustaches.

Story (7): Tight, taut and intelligent.

Direction (7): Brian Beresford balances the sterile courtroom with great action shots and beautiful panoramics.

Courtroom Scenes (8): One of the best defense summations on film.

Air of Reality (7): Also based on a real case. Captures the fog of war. The fallacy of honour. And the ties between fighting men. And the mischief that politics does to the law.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): The line between being a murderer and being a soldier is thin and blurry.

Hotness of Actors (6): Did I mention handlebar moustaches...?

Acting (8): Paul Newman was one of those rare lead actors that had the range and quirks of a character actor. His performance is deep and and layered. A man in crisis looking for redemption despite himself.

Story (8): Early David Mamet. Tough and hard and gritty.

Direction (7): Sydney Lumet, who is still working, at his peak. The tone and pacing of the movie match its main character.

Courtroom Scenes (7): Very good. The examinations are messy, unsatisfying and imperfect. The speeches are rough around the edges, simple and eloquent.

Air of Reality (7): Every litigator has one more case in him. You're never really out of the game. Even if you are.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): "You are the law. Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not some marble stature. Or the trappings of the court."

Hotness of Actors (7): Paul Newman... feh!... but more Charlotte Rampling please.

4. Rashomon 55.

Acting (8): Okay. I don't speak Japanese. But Toshiru Mifune rocks it.

Story (9): Simple, nuanced and powerful.

Direction (9): Akira Kurosawa's debut in the west. Stunningly direct, emotional and alive.

Courtroom Scenes (7): Technically, they are courtyard scenes but they are the basis of the story and they are electric and tense.

Air of Reality (9): In it's exploration of the unreliability and mixed motives behind eyewitness evidence, it is one of the most real movies out there. Utterly believable. With the possible exception of the testimony from beyond the grave. That rarely happens in real life.

Transcendent Legal Principles (6): Don't believe what you see, or hear.

Hotness of Actors (7): Mifune and the naif Machiko Kyo made Asians beautiful, sensual, powerful and human for the first time for western audiences.

3. Anatomy of a Muder 59.

Acting (9): Jimmy Stewart's finest and most subtle performance. Leah Remick is equally as brilliant as the powerful and powerless Laura. Ben Gazzara is edgy, arrogant and manipulative. And Eve Arden, Arthur O'Connell and George C. Scott fill in the spaces between them.

Story (9): Well told and interesting. The trial is contained in the larger context of the small town and the characters. So well balanced.

Direction (9): Otto Preminger was a god. The opening credits alone make this one of the great movies ever. Preminger's approach to framing his actors and the story was unique and dynamic.

Courtroom Scenes (9): Again, Preminger let the actors fill the spaces of the story, even in the courtroom scenes.

Air of Reality (8): For most of us, life is rarely as stylised as a Preminger movie.

Transcendent Legal Principles (7): Rationality is no match for irrationality.

Hotness of Actors (8): Lee Remick. Lee Remick. And did I mention Lee Remick?

2. Ghandi 60.

Acting (9): Ben Kinglsey disappeared in this role. He played Ghandi as a young, uptight barrister, an old, quixotic man and everything in between.

Story (9): If it had not in fact been true, this story would have been so utterly unbelievable. The dialogue keeps it human and avoids grand speeches and mythmaking. It is an intimate epic.

Direction (9): Okay. Tell the story of a perfect man and one of the largest, most chaotic countries, in a sweeping epic style that keeps the characters human. And go for three hours. Should be easy, right?

Courtroom Scenes (8): The three minute questioning of Brigadier General Dyer alone elevates the movie to rarified air.

Air of Reality (9): It all happened. Really. It did. It is a true story. Crazy, eh?

Transcendent Legal Principles (10): The rule of law is fundamental but the rule of justice is paramount.

Hotness of Actors (6): Ben Kingsley and a loin cloth...nudge, nudge, wink, wink... Thankfully, out of nowhere, a youngish Candace Bergen shows up to redeem things.

1. Witness for the Prosecution 62.

Acting (9): Charles Laughton 's performance as Sir Wilfred Robarts is one of the finest in the history of cinema. It was masterful and subtle and funny. Throw in Marlene Dietrich and a and Elsa Manchester, Laughton's wife, and you almost have perfection. Too bad about Tyrone Power.

Story (10): The plot is clever and tight and suspenseful. The dialogue reflects the difference of voice and the complexity of the characters.

Direction (10): Billy Wilder's talent was so outrageuous that this might not even be in his top three films.

Courtroom Scenes (8): High drama balanced with humour. Watch Laughton when he sits down at the end, exhausted and bothered by something.

Air of Reality (7): Well, okay, but that's mostly Tyrone Power's fault.

Transcendent Legal Principles (10): Cherchez la femme.

Hotness of Actors (8): Some people love Marlene Dietrich. The rest are fools.

- Beta

2. The Failure of a New System

Ok, so B's list includes some of the greats. But really, if this is the product of some new-fangled copyrighted system, it is a total flop. How else can we explain the utter failure to include some the following, particularly when we employ B's own precious criteria?

- Presumed Innocent

The acting is taught and the chemisty between Harrison Ford and Greta Scacchi is electric, while Raul Julia captures every scene he is in. The direction is fine, but the story is excellent (based on a Scott Turow novel), a suspense thriller with some real subtlety and sophistication in how it deals with the legal process. The scene in which Raul Julia conducts a cross-examination, in which he is actually threatening the judge without anyone else in the courtroom realizing it, is brilliant. The moral principle, that the justice system often operates on several levels, many of which are corrupt, is cynical but true. But really, even if all the foregoing were wrong, this movie would make it into the top ten under B's criteria for one reason alone: Greta Scacchi!!

- Judgment at Nuremberg

For a purported Marlene Deitrich fan, the absence of this from B's list is inexplicable. A brilliant if sometimes over-wrought depiction of the trial of German judges in the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. Some of the cross examination by Maximillian Schell is outstanding, and the moral principle, that the rule of law and justice transcends simply the law of the day, is still profoundly important today.

- A Civil Action

This movie, based on a true story (which, as strange as reality can be some times, involved a lawyer who started practice in the same firm from which the protagonist of The Verdict hailed), is one of the true giants of law movies. More than most, it captures the scale, complexity, and psychology of a large trial. Some of the court room scenes are more realistic, and yet still more gripping, than those of any other movie. The scene in which John Travolta asks the one question too many, an open ended one at that, in cross examination, is a sheer classic. Unless you count Travolta, there is no hotness here, but there is the truth that litigation is sometimes ill-equipped to produce justice.

- Philadelphia

On the hotness scale, at least for the gals, they don't come much hotter than Denzel Washington. This movie, about a lawyer (Tom Hanks) dying of AIDS and fighting a case against his firm for discrimination, was an important part of the movement to change opinions on AIDS and homosexuality in America. Hanks won best actor, and the scene of a dying Hanks explaining an aria to the skeptical Denzel, is one of the great scenes in cinema. And the scene of Hanks, explaining on the stand why he wanted to be a lawyer, would fill many a law school. In contrast to A Civil Action, this film celebrates what litigation can achieve.

Well, that is just some of the other greats absent from B's list, and surely better than some on his list. There are others that must also be in competition for the top-ten: A Few Good Men, with that great scene between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson (who's hot?!); Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's use of a court martial as a means of revealing the horrors and folly of war; In the Name of the Father - any movie with Daniel Day Lewis has to be up there; The Caine Mutiny - Bogey, are you kidding me? Under Suspicion, a movie about an interrogation, involving Hackman, Freeman, and the utterly smouldering, sizzling Monica Bellucci...the list could go on, but the defense rests. The copyright system is clearly guilty of utter failure and should be sentenced to banishment for the duration. - Gamma.

3. The Scientific Method

I think you need to sit down and with Inherit the Wind. Your denial of science is a little troubling. What's next? Creationism? Climate Change Denial? Rejection of the metric system? Maybe you just can't handle the truth.

I can't quibble with Great Scacchi. I take issue with Philadelphia.

Denzel was great, as always. But the rest of the film was contrived and preachy and studiously non-controversial. And two straight men playing desexualised versions of gay men were the moral equivalent of white men in black-face playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.

And Judgment at Nuremburg is a terrible movie. It is boring and unwatchable. It is redeemable only because it is such an amazing story in real life.

The Caine Mutiny, Presumed Innocent and a Civil Action all hovered on my short-list. I had forgotten about Name of the Father and Paths of Glory. And, I hate to admit it, have never seen Under Suspicion.

Also not making it were The Paper Chase, the Client, And Justice for All, the Hurricane and Reversal of Fortune. Not because they aren't good...they just couldn't stand the scrutiny of the scientific method. - Beta.

11 comments: said...
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Anonymous said...

What about the Japanese film "Even So, I Didn't Do it"? - great movie that depicts all that is wrong with the Japanese criminal justice system.

Ryan said...

Any method for rating law films which includes "A Few Good Men" but does not include "And Justice for All" is inherently flawed

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