Top 15 Trial Movies of the 1990s, Ranked: Hollywood has been producing Courtroom Dramas since the beginning of talkies, as the genre fits well with the so-called “Golden Age,” where most films were adapted from stage plays. They typically focus on crime and the legal processes surrounding them, with stories usually set primarily within the confines of a courtroom. By the second half of the 1960s, however, the genre began to fade, and its popularity declined. The 1980s started slowly bringing courtroom dramas to public attention, and many films produced during that time are now considered classics. They paved the way to the 1990s, a decade that arguably offered a complete renaissance for the genre.
Trial films have fascinated audiences throughout film history for a variety of reasons: some for accurate depictions of particularly captivating real-life cases, some for enthralling descriptions of trial strategy and criminal procedure, some for the engaging courtroom showdowns, and some for emphasizing compelling trials that had a significant impact on legal history. They often depict themes of corruption, racism, deception, legal ethics, and moral ambiguity.
For this list, a “Trial movie” has been defined as a movie where the courtroom trial plays a central role. The setting need not always be within the four walls of a courtroom as long as the narrative is predominantly linked to a trial. The ranking considers both the contemporary views and the movies’ legacies. At the same time, it’s also grounded with a certain degree of subjectivity.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Based on the eponymous non-fiction novel by John Berendt, the movie follows John Kelso, a magazine reporter who comes to Georgia to write an article about Jim Williams, an art collector and antique dealer, during one of Williams’ famous Christmas parties. The film takes the viewer on a journey through the beguiling city of Savannah and its eccentric inhabitants, ultimately delving into a mysterious murder case. The movie’s strong point is its depiction of the Southern Gothic ambiance that brings out the city’s enigmatic, almost mythical charm. The brilliant atmosphere, the film’s rich sense of place, the intriguing mystery, and the star-studded cast, led by John Cusack and Kevin Spacey, make this film one of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated directorial efforts.
The movie’s main weakness is probably Cusack’s protagonist, John Kelso, who feels underdeveloped. He represents the viewers’ perspective of the events depicted. The film is carried by its secondary characters, such as the mystical spiritualist Minerva, the transgender entertainer Lady Chablis (played by herself, which adds to the film’s authentic feel), and Spacey’s Jim Williams, the accused (although Spacey’s performance as Williams was famously disliked by the author of the book that this movie is based on). Spacey’s portrayal as a creepy groomer of a younger man might also be considered hard to digest by some viewers due to the controversial recent events surrounding the actor.
Let Him Have It (1991)
Let Him Have It portrays the tragic true story of Derek Bentley, a mentally impaired young man who becomes involved with a gang and is eventually accused of a murder he did not commit. The film is a compelling indictment of the British legal system, its narrative eliciting deep sympathy for its protagonist, who becomes a victim of his circumstances and societal failings. Its aesthetic successfully evokes the grim, desolate post-war Britain atmosphere. Viewers will quickly empathize with the protagonist, as the film shows how much of an influence the wrong entourage can have on a young, naïve boy, especially if he is struggling with mental difficulties.
While most of the plot is about the actions leading to the murder and the movie only leans towards courtroom drama towards the end, the final moments of the long-awaited trial will successfully elicit a strong emotional response from the captivated viewer. The excellent direction by Peter Medak and astonishing performances by the well-rounded cast make this movie highly recommendable. Chris Eccleston brilliantly portrays Bentley. His performance is moving and convincing, showcasing the character’s vulnerability and palpable naivety. All these elements make “Let Him Have It” a poignant and emotionally powerful film, especially worth seeing by those interested in true crime stories and the history of the British legal system.
15. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Released in 1993 and directed by Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father was based on the true story of the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of an I.R.A. bombing in 1974. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Gerard Patrick “Gerry” Conlon, an Irishman and one of the four men accused of the bombing. Pete Postlethwaite plays Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon, Gerry’s father, who tries vehemently to clear his son’s name only to end up imprisoned, while Emma Thompson plays Gareth Peirce, their defense lawyer. The film was exceptionally well received by critics and is regarded as one of the best films of 1993. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and acting nominations for all three leads.
It was noted for its powerful performances and for its delicate approach to depicting a notorious miscarriage of justice, swiftly presenting the long-term effects and consequences of judicial errors leading to wrongful convictions. Noted for its emotionally compelling narrative, the movie highlights a tragic true story. It shows the lengths some institutions might go to preserve their image rather than admit their mistakes. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is the film’s standout, as he dramatically demonstrates his unparalleled ability to inhabit his characters fully. His portrayal of a carefree young man transformed by anguish, anger, and eventual hope is heart-wrenching and authentic. Although the film takes some liberties with the actual events for dramatic purposes, it remains a crucial piece of cinema that challenges its audience to question the implications of a flawed justice system.
14. Amistad (1997)
Amistad is a historical courtroom drama directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on the events that happened in 1839 aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad when Mende tribespeople who were abducted to be sold as slaves in the United States managed to take control of their captors’ ship. A two-year-long legal battle followed, where the U.S. courts had to decide whether the Mende tribe members were enslaved or legally free and guilty of mutiny. Amistad features a large ensemble cast, including Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite and Stellan Skarsgård.
The film was critically lauded at the time of its release as it presented one of the most critical trials in U.S. history and, more importantly, in black history. It was described as one of the most important court cases involving slavery that immensely helped the abolitionist movement and paved the way for the historic emancipation decision in 1865. The movie’s veteran, diverse cast is sublime. The experienced actors deliver powerful, committed performances, with Hopkins’ performance being generally singled out for praise. He even famously delivered an entire seven-page courtroom speech in a single take and eventually received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 70th Academy Awards. The film itself is considered one of the defining trial movies of the 1990s.
13. The Winslow Boy (1999)
Written and directed by David Mamet, The Winslow Boy is a period drama adapted from the 1946 play by Terence Rattigan. It is based on a real-life case from Edwardian England, about a family fighting to clear their son’s name in the face of an indifferent bureaucratic system. The film’s strength lies in crafting an engaging narrative centered around a relatively simple premise. Mamet uses a minor domestic incident to challenge broader societal issues and the human cost of seeking justice. The fact that the story unfolds primarily offstage – in the family’s home rather than the court itself – plays to the benefit of the film, offering its narrative an intense intimacy and allowing the viewer to connect with the characters.
The dialogue is very clever and well-written, always seeming to flow naturally and with a style precisely crafted for effect. The characters talk logically and rationally, which is what we expect from a Mamet-written script, with his writing style regarding character dialogue being famously called the “Mamet speak.” But although Mamet is generally known for his sharp and fast-paced dialogue, in “The Winslow Boy,” he presents a more restrained but equally compelling narrative style. This is a must-watch, as it is a thoughtful and visually beautiful film with meticulous attention to period detail. The cinematography is subdued but elegant, and the film’s pacing immerses the audience in the Edwardian-era setting.
12. Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
Based on a real-life case, the movie is about the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist accused of murdering civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963. Beckwith had already been tried twice in the 1960s, and both trials ended in hung juries, with the movie portraying the third and final trial. Alec Baldwin stars as Bobby DeLaughter, the state prosecutor who decides to reopen the 30-year-old case at the request of Evers’ grieving mother, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg). The film explores a crucial chapter in American history, shedding light on the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the quest for justice in the face of racism. James Woods’ chilling performance as Beckwith is probably the film’s most vital point.
The actor was quoted as saying he went to the real Byron de la Beckwith while researching the role. He said that he looked into Beckwith’s eyes and thought of him as truly evil. His show-stealing portrayal earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, with the film also being nominated for Best Makeup. One of the main criticisms of the movie is that it focused too much on Baldwin’s character when it should have presented more of Medgar Evers’ tragic story. The focus on the white characters rather than the black ones can be seen as a missed opportunity in a film about a crucial chapter in the Civil Rights movement.
11. Philadelphia (1993)
Philadelphia is a 1993 legal drama directed by Jonathan Demme. It stars Tom Hanks as a man with HIV who is fired from his job because of his condition and Denzel Washington as the lawyer he hires to help him sue his former employers. Philadelphia is considered one of the most influential films of the 1990s, not just as a trial film but also because it helped raise awareness regarding the AIDS crisis that started in the early 1980s. It was inspired by the true story of Geoffrey Bowers, a man fired from his law firm due to AIDS-related discrimination.
The film is noted for its strong performances from its two leads and their on-screen chemistry. Denzel Washington plays Joseph Miller, the homophobic defense lawyer. He does not empathize with his client initially. Still, he decides to take his case anyway because he sees parallels between the racial discrimination he has experienced and the HIV discrimination his client endures. Tom Hanks delivers a touching performance as a man mistreated by society and his employers, making the movie much more emotional and powerful than the typical trial film. Hanks went on to win his first Academy Award for this role.
10. A Time to Kill (1996)
A Time to Kill is a courtroom crime drama adaptation of John Grisham’s 1989 novel of the same name. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the film features an A-list cast led by Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, and Donald Sutherland. Film critic Roger Ebert famously lauded A Time to Kill as “the best of the film versions of Grisham novels.” The film is about the trial of a black man (Jackson) accused of killing two white men who raped his daughter and the young, idealistic Lawyer (McConaughey) who decides to defend him in court. The gripping story explores themes of racism, vigilante justice, and moral ambiguity. It deals with racial tensions stoked by the evil Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.
The movie benefits from brilliant performances, with Jackson receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 1997 Golden Globe Awards. The film helped launch McConaughey and Bullock to stardom. Their on-screen chemistry is evident, and their portrayals are solid and convincing. The film was not without its detractors. Many critics took issue with its message surrounding a person’s right to commit murder, regardless of circumstances. Others have expressed their opinions that the film is too long and overly simplifies its themes of racism. Still, the movie is highly esteemed as a classic courtroom drama.
9. The Rainmaker (1997)
Francis Ford Coppola was the extraordinary director in Hollywood (or in the world, for that matter) during the 1970s, directing four timeless classics. The 80s were only moderately successful with critics and audiences. While the 90s didn’t quite bring back his brilliance from the 70s, he upped his game to make a partial comeback with movies like The Godfather Part III, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or his legal masterpiece The Rainmaker. Based on John Grisham’s 1995 eponymous novel, the film stars Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, a lawyer freshly graduated from the University of Memphis Law School who takes on a fraudulent insurance company case. The movie is noted for its depiction of legal strategies, pre-trial procedures, and other courses of action aside from the courtroom scenes.
It also realistically portrays the obstacle a young, inexperienced lawyer with no high-placed connections faces and his struggles to make a living from part-time jobs while trying to make it big as a defense lawyer. Rudy ends up working for an ambulance chaser and being helped by a paralegal of questionable ethics, which allows the film to approach themes of morality, where the financially struggling young lawyer must make essential decisions in choosing between doing the right thing or following the path of quickly earned money through morally ambiguous means. Often considered a classic legal drama, The Rainmaker is generally regarded by critics and by Grisham himself as the best adaptation of the novelist’s works.
8. Guilty by Suspicion (1991)
One of the more obscure films on the list, this 1991 drama stars Robert De Niro and explores Hollywood’s infamous blacklisting period during the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and early 1950s, where professionals working in the film industry were shunned due to alleged communist ties. The film tells the story of David Merrill, a once-successful Hollywood director who now becomes a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. Refusing to name names to the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), he faces severe consequences that impact both his career and his personal life. As expected, Robert De Niro is outstanding as Merrill, bringing depth and nuance to the role.
His transformation from a carefree, successful director to a man fighting with the implications of his decisions and with a system that doesn’t care about the presumption of innocence is presented with such natural ease. Moreover, the audience deeply resonated with the character’s moral dilemma and emotional turmoil. The film perfectly encapsulates the climate of fear and suspicion that pervaded the Hollywood industry during this era and provides an insightful look into the ethical conundrums faced by those who were blacklisted. The dark period of McCarthyism and the resulting repercussions have probably never been presented in such an effective way on screen as in “Guilty by Suspicion.” The thought-provoking screenplay and solid direction make this underseen gem a worthwhile addition to your watchlist.
7. Presumed Innocent (1990)
Presumed Innocent is a 1990 legal thriller directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor charged with the murder of his colleague and mistress Carolyn Polhemus (played by Greta Scacchi). Rusty’s quest to prove his innocence becomes increasingly complex as the evidence piles up. The movie keeps the viewer guessing throughout due to its twist-filled narrative, Pakula’s competent direction, and a committed performance by Ford. The film’s first half revolves around Rusty’s efforts to be exonerated. Almost all his colleagues and friends seem to turn against him. He only has his wife and long-time collaborator, Detective Dan Lipranzer, on his side.
But the film concludes with an inevitable trial, and that’s where it truly shines. One of the best trials to ever be put on screen, it is formidable due to the superb performances of Raul Julia as Sandy Stern, Rusty’s long-time rival who is now hired to defend him, and Paul Winfield as Judge Larren L. Lyttle, genuinely standing out as one of the most memorable movie judges. Presumed Innocent remains a compelling legal drama that stands out in its genre, exploring themes of corruption, deception, and betrayal. It was famously called “the kind of effective courtroom thriller most others aspire to be.”
6. Reversal of Fortune (1990)
Reversal of Fortune follows the true story of Claus von Bülow, a wealthy socialite who was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, after she was left in a persistent vegetative state due to an alleged insulin overdose in 1980. Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close star play Claus and Sunny, respectively, while Ron Silver plays Alan Dershowitz, the famous law professor who served as Claus’ defense attorney. Irons is at the center of the story, and the focus on his character allows the film to work as a satire of the aristocrats. Despite this, the narrative is uniquely presented from the perspective of Claus’ wife, Sunny, who serves as the film’s quasi-narrator despite being unconscious throughout.
Glenn Close’s haunting performance and voiceovers provide a chilling backdrop to the drama, and the film’s creative decision to use her voice to tell the story works for the best. This focus on character exploration over legal procedures gives the film a certain degree of unicity within the trial genre. While most of the story takes place outside the courtroom, the narrative still unfolds similarly to a trial movie, focusing on Professor Dershowitz’s innovative defense and planning, helped by his law students. Jeremy Irons is at his best here. Throughout the film, his masterful performance leaves the viewer questioning Claus’ innocence or guilt. He portrays a character who is both beguilingly detached and subtly menacing. Irons went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
5. Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995)
The movie dramatizes one of the most protracted and expensive criminal trials in American history, wherein members of the McMartin family, who ran a preschool in California, were accused of child molestation and satanic ritual abuse. The charges greatly impacted the American population and led to widespread panic about child abuse in the U.S. The story works as a critique of the media circus surrounding the trial during the 1980s and its exploration of the flaws in the justice system. The film does a fantastic job of showing how mass hysteria and an overzealous prosecution can lead to a miscarriage of justice, as it even had the tagline “The charges were so shocking, the truth didn’t matter.”
“Indcitment” doesn’t shy away from the controversial and emotionally charged nature of the alleged charges, and it manages to present the chaos and uncertainty of the situation without resorting to melodrama. In his second appearance on this list, James Woods delivers a powerful performance as defense attorney Danny Davis. Woods’ portrayal is layered and complex, aptly balancing his character’s initial skepticism toward his clients with his growing realization of the injustices perpetrated against them. He was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance.
4. My Cousin Vinny (1992)
The only comedy on this list, My Cousin Vinny, is a unique blend of courtroom drama and satire, standing out for its humor and wit. Often called “the most accurate courtroom drama ever made,” it is known for its surprisingly precise depiction of trial strategy and criminal procedure, even receiving praise from the American Bar Association. The plot follows two New Yorkers wrongly accused of murder in rural Alabama. One of the defendants’ cousins, Vincent “Vinny” Gambini, an inexperienced lawyer, agrees to take their case. Much of the film’s humor derives from the culture clash between the street-smart Vinny and the more conservative Southern townspeople. Pesci manifests Vinny’s character flawlessly, with his trademark New York accent and audacious confidence lending authenticity to the role.
He delivers one-liners with composure, and his fish-out-of-the-water interactions with the rural townsfolk are the film’s highlights. Furthermore, the film’s most vital point is Marisa Tomei’s magnetic portrayal of Mona Lisa Vito, Vinny’s car expert fiancée. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. The chemistry between her and Pesci is delightful, creating a charming dynamic that forms the film’s heart. Fred Gwynne’s portrayal of the stern and incredulous Judge Chamberlain Haller is also noteworthy, effectively contrasting Pesci’s Vinny. Overall, the strong performances, assured direction, and clever script make for a film that delivers both laughs and substance, a combination that is often hard to achieve.
3. Sleepers (1996)
Sleepers is a legal crime drama film directed by Barry Levinson and featuring a star-studded cast including Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, Dustin Hoffman, and Minnie Driver. The film tells the story of four New York City boys sent to a juvenile detention center after a prank ends in tragedy. While there, the boys suffer physical and sexual abuse from the guards. Years later, they incidentally encounter one of the guards and seize the chance to get their revenge, resulting in a trial. This kind of film makes the viewer think long after the end credits roll, which has a long-lasting profound effect on its audience.
So much happens in its almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime. So many details are covered that the viewers will undoubtedly be left reflecting on many vexed topics addressed, such as child abuse, retribution, and the long-term effects of trauma. Sleepers resemble the classic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Both crime dramas show how a dark past influences our protagonists in adulthood. The performances from the stellar cast are sublime, while Levinson’s direction ensures the movie’s grim subject matter is sensitively handled. This memorable viewing experience is bound to have a powerful emotional impact on its viewers.
2. Primal Fear (1996)
Primal Fear is a legal mystery thriller starring Richard Gere as defense attorney Martin Vail, who takes the case of Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton in his film debut), a stuttering, seemingly innocent altar boy accused of murdering a priest. One of the best thrillers of the 1990s, the movie is renowned for its suspenseful atmosphere, great pacing, and unexpected twists that keep the audience engaged until the end. It is best to watch it without knowing too much about it beforehand. While having tense courtroom scenes, robust dialogue, and dramatic reveals, the film also greatly benefits from its gripping performances, particularly from its two lead actors.
Norton received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe Award for portraying the accused altar boy. The film works as a blend of legal drama and psychological thriller. Its themes of legal ethics, manipulation, and the nature of evil are skillfully addressed, keeping the audience engaged. The film’s soundtrack features the song Canção do Mar by Portuguese singer Dulce Pontes throughout, which ideally creates a chilling and mystifying atmosphere. All these aspects make Primal Fear an engaging legal thriller with plenty of suspense. While it may veer into sensationalism at times, it is a well-crafted piece of cinema that fans of the genre will doubtlessly enjoy.
1. A Few Good Men (1992)
The only court-martial movie on the list, A Few Good Men, is arguably the best courtroom drama of the 1990s and one of the best of all time. Featuring A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, and J.T Walsh, the film follows hot-shot Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), a young military lawyer who is tasked with defending two U.S. Marines charged with killing a fellow Marine at the Guantanamo Bay Naval base. Helped by Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Moore), they must navigate a complex case that involves military honor and raises questions of military authority.
Noted for its strong direction from Rob Reiner and celebrated performances, especially from Cruise and Nicholson, the movie is endlessly quotable and rewatchable. Cruise’s strong performance as the hotshot lawyer shows significant character development throughout the film. He moves from being a casual, indifferent lawyer to a determined and passionate advocate for his clients. Demi Moore complements Cruise’s character perfectly, her character often being at odds with Kaffee, which allows him to grow and become a better version of himself. But Nicholson steals the show, with his performance during the climactic courtroom scene forever etched into cinematic history. The movie received four nominations at the 65th Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson, but it did not win in any category.