Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Courtroom Drama

Previous: Epics

This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about giving importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined. It has generated opinions among fans and film aficionados ever since in varying degrees of disagreement. If you’re unaware, the AFI is a non-profit organization created by the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 60s. One of its main charters is the preservation of American film legacy. As they put it,

“Each special honors a different aspect of excellence in American film.”

Unquestionably, their prime purpose was to get people talking about film. So be it. This series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012 is my motivated response to compare their picks with a moviegoer (me) per each of their indexes. Naturally, I’m fully aware that readers’ mileage may vary (indeed, we know they will) when it comes to these selections. Fair enough. Either way, it’s going to be painful as picking one above the other always is in such endeavors. You’re invited to add your own and/or disagree all you want in the comments or your blog site (all I ask is that you leave a link so we, the readers, can peruse). Shall we continue?

Courtroom Drama

AFI defines “courtroom drama” as a genre of film in which a system of justice plays a critical role in the film’s narrative.

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird
  2. 12 Angry Men
  3. Kramer vs. Kramer
  4. The Verdict
  5. A Few Good Men
  6. Witness For The Prosecution
  7. Anatomy Of A Murder
  8. In Cold Blood
  9. A Cry In The Dark
  10. Judgment at Nuremberg
My list:
  1. To Kill A Mockingbird [AFI #1] – yeah, I’m two lists into this series and I’m in agreement with the vaunted AFI’s #1 in each. So? But really, there’s no way I can topple this one in my eyes. Harper Lee’s masterwork was splendidly adapted by Horton Foote, remains the best film in director Robert Mulligan’s career, and endures as a moving, thoughtful film experience. While it may be regarded as simple compared to other courtroom dramas with its morality and inequity on display, it prevails as a testament to the genre and the meaning of justice.
  2. The Verdict [AFI #4] – I’m going with one of director Sidney Lumet’s other courtroom dramas that is not the obvious choice as my close second. Paul Newman’s alcoholic and down-on-his-luck Frank Galvin is miles removed from Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, but he equally binds the story in real and meaningful ways. IMO, this is Newman’s best performance (rewarded or otherwise). Plus, both he and Lumet benefited from a searing script by David Mamet (adapted from Barry Reed’s novel).
  3. 12 Angry Men [AFI # 2] – this is one of the greatest directorial début efforts in cinema, I think. Sidney Lumet couldn’t asked for a better inception, or leading man (Henry Fonda). Though highly stage-bound with just about everything occurring in a hot, muggy, and cloistered jury room, that never gets in the way of a compelling story that weighs the guilt or innocent of a man on trial. The director, who has had some of the most noted courtroom scenes and dramas ever on film, set the hallmark with this one.
  4. Breaker Morant – I’ll break away entirely from the AFI with this film, one they may not have considered at all. Bruce Beresford’s screen adaptation of the Kenneth G. Ross’ play, which was based on true events during the Boer War, is a thought-provoking and castigating film. One that thoroughly meets AFI’s definition for the genre. Edward Woodard and Bryan Brown, as the Australian officers scapegoated for and by the British empire and its political aims, are nothing short of electric in this. It remains my top pick in the military sub-set for courtroom drama.
  5. Witness For The Prosecution [AFI #6] – I’ll move up Billy Wilder’s courtroom who-done-it to this slot. No surprise, it’s based on a Agatha Christie novel/play. While it was also Tyrone Power’s last film, that’s not why it remains this high on the list. The trademark cynical, snappy dialogue associated with Wilder, and veterans Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich performing at their older best are the chief reasons this lives on as a deserving classic.
  6. Anatomy Of A Murder [AFI #7] – again, I’ll move another one up. Probably the only Otto Preminger film I’ll have in this whole series, but it really is a worthy one (his best, no doubt). Controversial for its time, its adult storyline had plenty of ambiguity and great actor performances in James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott and the late-Ben Gazzara. This is one movie that in point of fact benefits from its black and white cinematography. Grayscale fits it perfectly.
  7. Paths of Glory – since I mentioned and listed their second collaboration high up on my Epic list, I can’t leave off Stanley Kubrick’s and Kirk Douglas’ first film together. It is another exemplary military courtroom drama. The 1957 film became one of the first in a string of anti-war films of the 50s and the decade to follow. Again, it deals with subordinates scapegoated by court-martial so the ineptitude of their superior officers could be protected. It is another stark work that remains memorable for its theme and imagery.
  8. The Caine Mutiny – see, this is why the AFI gets a bulls-eye painted on its back by long-time cinema fans. Leaving off the Ed Dmytryk-directed, Stanley Kramer-produced, film translation of Herman Wouk’s play for other non-deserving fare is almost criminal. Watching Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Commander Queeg should be required screening for movie fans and actors alike. Having Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and even a young Lee Marvin there ain’t bad either.
  9. A Few Good Men [AFI #5] – the Rob Reiner crowd-pleaser film adaptation of the Aaron Sorkin play does deserve its place on such a Top 10 list. No question. I just have the film lower, that’s all. Its star-studded cast works well — especially Jack Nicholson (in decidedly non-Jack mode) — using the trademark Sorkin dialogue to extraordinary effect. I can watch and quote from the last of my military courtroom films no end, just like all of those on this inventory.
  10. In Cold Blood [AFI #8] – I’ll keep Richard Brooks 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime novel in my tensome, just dropping it a couple of notches from AFI’s. It is the only documentary-like film in the set. But in this case, that is its strength. As well, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give haunting portrayals for a pair of tormented murderers that will stay with the viewer long after the end credits finish.
Note: as you can see, I again dropped a couple from AFI’s Top Ten list from mine, especially one that doesn’t have any business being there. Yeah, I’m talking about you Kramer vs. Kramer. I’m dumbfounded that not only was it on their list, it was at #3 for chrissakes! It’d make my top thirty, sure… maybe barely. A Cry in the Dark is way better than that film, but I couldn’t keep it ahead of those I’ve mentioned. Same goes for Judgment at Nuremberg. You also may have noticed one visual aspect for those I’ve listed. Seven of my ten make grand use of black and white cinematography. I think courtroom drama, as a genre, lends itself better to the stark contrast, including the inherit grayscale, of that venerable medium. In many ways, it enhances the subject matter and characters in this class of cinema, in my opinion.

What would be yours?

Next Up: Gangster

The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series:

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33 Responses to “Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Courtroom Drama”

  1. Herbster

    Wow, how lacking I am in this category. To Kill would be at the top for me as well and just watched Judgement at Nuremburg recently and a fine film/history lesson it was. All others are just a fog in the past. I remember K vs K was just like you said, not deserving. Time to brush up on my law. Thanks for the great post.

    oh, wanted to share this with you. Walking thru Target the other day and stopped by the dvd section, I was so thrilled to get 20 Hitchcock films for 5 bucks, felt like a kid, LOL. Mostly from the 20’s and 30’s, I had no idea he made silent.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, there are number of great films in this category. They are drama done to a specific point and done well.

      Great pick-up, Herb! I’ve been surprised at finding some gems myself at Target recently. Many thanks, my friend.

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  2. Castor

    Courtroom drama are hard to do because they can be incredibly drawn out and dull if they don’t totally work. Me, I would mention Philadelphia as one of my favorite. Also love A Few Good Men and Kramer vs. Kramer. Recently, I also quite liked The Lincoln Lawyer.

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    • le0pard13

      Great point about how difficult it is to create a worthy courtroom drama, Castor. When they work, they can be quite meaningful to the viewer (as with your favorites). I need to watch ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’. I know the Mickey Haller series by Michael Connelly has a number of book fans so I should schedule this soon. Many thanks for reading and adding to this, my friend.

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  3. Matt Stewart

    To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing short of a classic, but it probably sits number 4 on my list.

    #3 Paths of Glory
    #2 Anatomy of a Murder
    #1 12 Angry Men

    I think A Time to Kill is a bit of an underrated one as well. Thanks for sharing Michael! Lov ehte series 😀

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    • le0pard13

      You can’t go wrong with those on your list, Matt. I remember ‘A Time to Kill’. Good underrated pick. I haven’t seen that one in a while and should correct that. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on this series :-).

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  4. Scott Lawlor

    Excellent!!

    I love this as you know I have recently seen Mocking Bird, and this weekend I saw 12 Angry Men which I loved!!

    Thanks for sharing matey. I am with Castor, The Lincoln Lawyer was a recent beauty. I just wish they would make it into a TV Show. I would so love to watch that

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    • le0pard13

      Aren’t those two simply great? Totally different perspectives and cases, yet connected by the sheer affecting drama on display. Definitely, I’m scheduled ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ since you and Castor really are giving props to it. Many thanks, Scott.

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  5. Ronan

    Hi Michael. My favs from that list are Kramer vs Kramer and 12 Angry Men. I haven’t seen everything on there, though Philedelphia and The Exorcism of Emily Rose would be two examples of more recent quality courtroom dramas that could make the list in years to come.

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    • le0pard13

      Good to see you chime in on this, Ronan. I knew there was love out there for K vs. K (certainly, by the AFI), but I had to be honest when putting this together. ‘Philedelphia’ is a great pick, but you have me curious about ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’. Courtroom drama horror? I now have to quickly queue up a showing of this as I’ve not seen it. Many thanks for adding to this, my friend.

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  6. ruth

    Wahoo! To Kill a Mockingbird as number one, you know that makes me happy Michael 🙂 I’ve only seen that one and A Few Good Men and the latter is one of my fave Tom Cruise films. I like The Lincoln Lawyer too despite how I feel about Matthew, but he’s quite good here. I have 12 Angry Men at home as part of a box set (my company makes products for legal professionals), and I’m sure it deserves its place amongst the greats. Great post!

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, I can’t dislodge ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that’s for sure. I’ll be showing the new Blu-ray to my kids fairly soon, too. I think ’12 Angry Men’ should be must viewing for everyone, but I’ll stop short of saying “there outta be law” ;-). Hmm… another vote for ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’. I have in the Netflix queue now. Many thanks, Ruth.

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  7. Darren

    I am going to be the only person ever who says this, but…

    Primal Fear.

    Yes, the Richard Gere one.

    Not only for the catchy soundtrack, but for the wonderful profile of Gere’s character and the limits of an adversarial system. I say, without a hint of sarcasm or cynicism, that it was that movie that convinced me to study law. I know it’s trashy, but it’s the very highest quality of trashy law film.

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    • le0pard13

      Hey, Darren! Good to have you chime in on this category of film. No complaints, here, my friend. I, too, enjoy ‘Primal Fear’. I think you’ve nailed why it remains a crowd pleaser, alright.

      I know it’s trashy, but it’s the very highest quality of trashy law film.

      Well said. Thanks for reading and giving your thoughts to the post.

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    • le0pard13

      That a very valid point about K vs. K, TMB. The film does play and rate better with me as a drama (family or otherwise) than as the courtroom variety. Thanks for reading and contributing, my friend.

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  8. Rachel

    I couldn’t make a top 10 list (I just don’t watch enough movies to break down a top 10 by genre) but I’ll mention one that I love that hasn’t yet been noted: Murder in the First. I thought it was a fantastic film and a performance out of Kevin Bacon I never would have expected.

    I also like A Few Good Men quite a bit (doesn’t it feel like that one is part of American culture at this point? who doesn’t know the iconic lines?) and I really enjoyed your TMT about that one.

    And, oh! I didn’t realize I was supposed to be chagrined about liking Primal Fear. I thought it was great.

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  9. top 250 yet the three “Lord in the Rings” videos are somewhere inside top ten » Eristoddle

    […] Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Courtroom Drama – Previous: Epics This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. […]

    Like

    Reply

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