If you’re a fan of documentaries, you know we’re living in the golden age of non-fiction cinema. Whether you like docs about penguins or gun control, there is a seemingly endless well of great documentary films to draw from. As cool as penguins are, many of us have more morbid obsessions – and can’t help but watch films that dare us to look away. When it comes to crime and murder, Hollywood films just can’t match up to real life when it comes to the awful things that people are capable of.
Often Hollywood movies will try and make sense of a killer’s motives, suggesting logical, if not misguided reasons, why someone would commit a horrible crime. Or else, they render a killer into an unrecognizable monster, someone who looks like a human but does not behave like one. Fictional movies also have a tendency to overstate the morality and fairness of the justice system – when in reality, mistakes are made through error or outright bias. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction and this list showcases the fact that we understand very little of each other and the line between anyone and a cold-blooded killer is maybe not as clearly defined as you’d assume.
If you’re like us then you’ve been hooked on true crime shows since you saw The Jinx on HBO last year, this list will hopefully offer you some new viewing material to satisfy your hunger for true crime. Just don’t blame us after watching some of these films if you have a harder time sleeping at night, you’ve been warned.
15. Bus 174 (2002)
This Brazilian documentary about a hijacked bus makes Speed look like child’s play. The film depicts the live television event that gripped Brazil in 2000 when Bus 174 was taken hostage by an armed man who threatened to kill everyone on the bus. A horrifying portrait of extreme poverty in Rio, as well as police corruption, Bus 174 will carve a hole in the pit of your stomach. The shocking violence and the failure of authorities to properly respond to the unfolding event is just the tip of the iceberg. Made from footage from the event, Bus 174 is an often shocking and consistently gripping thriller that is crazier than any Hollywood movie you will ever see.
14. Tabloid (2010)
Maybe the funniest film on the list, Tabloid is the absurd story of Joyce McKinney, an accidental tabloid star. A blonde bombshell, Joyce became the biggest star in the UK in 1977 after being accused of kidnapping and raping Kirk Anderson. Called the “Mormon Sex in Chains Trial”, this film explores the many facets of untruths involved in the case, most of them coming directly from Joyce who is delirious, charming and incredibly manipulative. Very much a “he said, she said” case, by the end of the film you’re not quite sure what to make of the entire situation. Joyce might not be a reliable narrator, but does that mean she’s a liar?
13. There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (2011)
On the surface, the story of Diane Schuler does not make very much sense. A woman who by all accounts seemed happy and successful in her personal and professional life, drove the wrong way down Taconic Parkway in upstate New York leading to the death of herself and seven others. The media aftermath painted Diane as a suburban mother who cracked under pressure, or an uncontrollable alcoholic. As the documentarians search for the real reason for Diane Schuler’s murder-suicide, we are brought on a tragic and difficult journey through her day to day life and the circumstances which led to her terrible and fatal crime.
12. Cropsey (2009)
Cropsey is as much a film about a child murderer as it is about urban legends. As the filmmakers attempt to get to the root of a childhood urban legend, they are brought deep into their past where it seems that truth might be a lot stranger (and sadder) than fiction. The filmmakers start investigating the real-life disappearance of five children and unearth disturbing truths about not only the assailant – but the social failures that allowed for their murders. A DIY documentary, Cropsey will make you rethink the monster under the bed and make you think twice about the creepy campfire stories you told as a kid.
11. The Central Park Five (2012)
On April 19th, 1989, Trisha Meili, was violently assaulted and sexually assaulted while jogging in Central Park. One of the most publicized crimes of the 1980s, five young black and Latino men were accused and convicted of the crime, in spite of overwhelming evidence that they were innocent. The film explores the facts of the case, as well as the racist narrative that the media perpetuated which lead to the false imprisonment of the teen boys. The film echoes darkly beyond the case, suggesting far deeper biases within the justice system that many of us prefer to believe are not there.
10. The Imposter (2012)
The Imposter is a labyrinth of misunderstandings and deception, as a family accepts into their home an imposter they believe is their son who went missing years before. In spite of the fact the boy now has a french accent, is clearly far too old and bears only the most tangential resemblance to their missing child, they accept him as one of their own. While friends of the family have their suspicions, they don’t want to interfere with the family deluded by grief. That is until some start to believe the family knows this stranger is not their son and they’re using him as a shield to hide something far more sinister.
9. Into the Abyss (2011)
This tense and disturbing film examines the terrible crime of teenage murderers with an interesting twist. While the film retells their crime in harrowing detail, the movie zeroes in on their life behind bars and the fact that these young offenders are now on death row. While the documentarian (Werner Herzog, who directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and starred as the villain in Jack Reacher) does not ask us to forgive these boys of their crime, he does question the need for government mandated murder. The cyclical nature of violence is especially apparent, as the film also includes interviews with one of the boy’s fathers, who is also spending his life in prison.
8. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Capturing the Friedmans was made by Andrew Jarecki, the same director who directed The Jinx (2015). A truly bizarre film surrounding the Friedman family and the accusations of molestation leveled against the various members of the Friedman family. Jarecki stumbled across the story, and a huge collection of home movies, as he was making a short film when he met a popular New York clown named David Friedman. From there Jarecki started investigating the family, as well as interviewing several of the victims of abuse, which he put together in this scathing and operatic documentary.
7. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
The Ward family never quite fit in the rural community of Munnsville, NY. The brothers lived in a small shack on the outskirts of the town, and never really integrated into normal life. They didn’t get married, they didn’t have kids, they just didn’t seem normal… so when one of them is found dead, under the suspicion of murder, the town turns against the oldest brother Delbert. As rumors fly and the “big city” becomes involved, the facts of the case become more complicated and the illusion of the Ward brothers as simple minded weirdos starts to wear away. While the truth never quite comes to light, the justice system comes across as petty and foolish.
6. The Paradise Lost Trilogy
The Paradise Lost trilogy echoes the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials. At the height of the satanic panic in the United States, as three teens are accused of the murder and sexual humiliation of three boys. The scenario is already horrific, but as the film unfolds and it becomes painfully clear that the teens were scapegoats – condemned because of the music they listened to and the way they dressed. In the highly evangelical community, the boys never quite fit in and were suddenly on the hook for crimes they probably did not commit. The filmmakers have been so adamant about their innocence, that they followed up the film with two sequels, attempting to reveal the bungled case and the corruption that kept them behind bars.
5. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
The original true crime film, The Thin Blue Line famously made such a compelling case that it helped overturn a guilty verdict for a very lucky (or unlucky) Texan man. Told through both interviews and recreations, the film goes through the facts of a case of a murdered police officer. As the film progresses, it comes across a series of anomalies and a whole lot of police corruption, as it becomes increasingly clear that the accused, Randall Dale Adams, could not have committed the crime. In spite of being completely absolved for his crimes and having to spend 12 years in prison, Adams never saw a penny of money from the Texas government until his death in 2011.
4. The Jinx (2015)
2015 was the year of the true crime miniseries, and The Jinx kicked the whole thing off! This HBO doc captured the attention of viewers as we followed the increasingly bizarre behaviors of an eccentric millionaire (and probable murderer) Robert Durst. The film really focuses on the fact that money can often buy you a different version of justice than those without, and portrays Durst as a cold and calculating man. His verbal and facial ticks seemed emblematic of a man who had something to hide, and by the end of the 4 ½ hour journey through his supposed crimes – it turns out he really did.
3. The Staircase (2004)
Before The Jinx and Making a Murderer, there was The Staircase. This documentary miniseries from the early 2000’s was made for French TV, and depicted the court case of a wealthy American man accused of murdering his wife. As each episode comes to an end, an important and game-changing revelation comes to life. In a story too bizarre for fiction, crime author Michael Peterson’s life is turned upside down as his past is deconstructed before the grand jury. Things get increasingly suspicious as someone close to him had died under very similar circumstances decades before, and that someone happened to be the biological mother of his adoptive children! That is just the tip of the iceberg on this very bizarre case.
2. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Sorry Canadians, you don’t get a pass on this list. Dear Zachary is maybe one of the most depressing films ever made, and it explores the injustices and failures of the Canadian justice system. What begins as a film of remembrance shifts into an incredibly heavy true crime film that will leave you drowning in an ocean of your own tears. The film made such a compelling case that it helped change Canadian law in order to better represent the interest and safety of children during bail and custody hearings.
1. Making a Murderer (2015)
For about a month last year, it seemed like everyone who had a Netflix account was eating up every last detail of Making a Murderer. Inspiring countless amateur theories, this bizarre story of murder had more twists and turns than most of us could keep track of – but we could not stop watching! This apparent miscarriage of justice portrays the life and trials of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was exonerated completely for one vicious assault, only to be accused of murder by the same police force a few years after his release. The film itself will keep you at the edge of your seat, with each episode offering new and horrifying revelations. As interviews and counter-arguments continued to stream out after the film’s release, we’re no longer sure what to believe about Avery’s innocence — but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to know more!
This one may well be the best known on the list, but there is a reason for that. It truly is a profoundly troubling story and is a must watch.