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Oscar, Esquire: Legal Films and the Academy Awards

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In just a few short days, celebrities will walk the red carpet at the 86th Academy Awards, with a select few hopefuls in contention to bring home a coveted Oscar.

Best Picture nominees include films about artificial intelligence, astronauts, AIDS patients, slaves, estranged families, heroes, and con men. While no traditional courtroom drama makes the list this year, a dark horse contender, The Wolf of Wall Street, deals with the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker convicted of securities fraud and money laundering in the late 1990's. It looks as though this is as close as the legal field will get to sniffing an Oscar this time around.

However, over the years, legal films have often been forerunners in Oscar contention, with some of the greatest American films set primarily inside a courtroom. Perhaps it is our nation's commitment to justice and our belief in the triumph of right... or perhaps it is just some macabre fascination with getting inside a courtroom without actually suffering through the stress of a lawsuit firsthand.

Regardless, no one can deny that trial films appeal to our society, and legal movies rank as some of the best cinema of all time.

While there is no definitive list of the Top 100 Movies, or even the top movies based on genre, several film organizations have compiled rankings based on user reviews, film critic reviews, box office receipts, and other criteria. This infographic I compiled takes a look at several of the rankings when it comes to legal films, including the legal films which have racked in the most Academy Awards throughout history.

In one list of the "Top 10 Law Films," the classic To Kill a Mockingbird takes top honors. First a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, then an academy award-winning film, To Kill a Mockingbird features Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, an attorney standing up for the little man in the face of racism in the deep South.

Still, although few would argue the film's standing among the top legal films, its ranking varies among different outlets: Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 94 percent, while Metacritic gives it a score of only 64 percent. AMC lists it as #11 among the Top 100 Movies, but the IMDB Top 250 Movies ranks it as #74. Compare the IMDB ranking with another leading legal film, 12 Angry Men, which ranked #7, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100 percent.

In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the "greatest movie hero of the 20th century," and in 2008, To Kill a Mockingbird was named the top courtroom drama by AFI's "Ten Top Ten." The full list of the AFI's Top 10 Courtroom Dramas follows:

  1. To Kill a Mockinbird (1962)
  2. 12 Angry Men (1957)
  3. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
  4. The Verdict (1982)
  5. A Few Good Men (1992)
  6. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  7. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  8. In Cold Blood (1967)
  9. A Cry in the Dark (1988)
  10. Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)

One thing seems clear from looking at the AFI's list--it has been a while since we have had a strong courtroom drama with all the makings of a classic.

No doubt, selecting "the best law film" is highly dependent on one's personal preferences and even the general mood of the public at the time a film is released. So let's see what Oscar has to say about the best trial films since the inception of the Academy Awards.

A Man for All Seasons, the story of how Sir Thomas More tried to resist King Henry VIII's attempt to circumvent the law in order to obtain a divorce, earned six Oscar wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Writing (based on another medium), Best Cinematography, and Best Costumes. It also won four Golden Globes.

Next is Kramer vs. Kramer, earning five Academy Awards. This 1979 divorce drama won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.

To Kill a Mockingbird ranks third among legal films earning Academy Awards. The 1962 film earned Oscars for Best Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Something to note though, is the lack of quality films with a major legal tilt over the past decade, at least as far as the Academy is concerned. Have legal films merely fallen out of favor recently, or is there truly a lack of quality courtroom cinema being created?

Although films such as The Social Network, which contain many legal undertones and plenty of scenes depicting legal devices such as depositions have received nominations in the recent past, there just isn't a plethora of courtroom-based trial films finding their way to the silver screen nor earning Academy Award nominations. What gives?

One common theme in many classic courtroom dramas has always been the notion that the little man can overcome injustice. Whether battling corporate greed or standing up to discrimination, the idea that our justice system has a strong backbone and supports what is good and right is something our society has historically supported at the box office.

Is this perhaps an ideal from a past soon to be forgotten?