This year marks the 50th anniversary of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a pioneering work of the true crime genre, and a milestone which coincides with a current boom in the popularity of true crime, especially in film and television. From Making a Murderer to O.J.: Made in America to The Jinx (not to mention such unfortunate productions as The Case of: Jonbenet Ramsey), it’s a Golden Age for telling real-life stories of misery. Netflix in particular has made a name for itself in this niche, acquiring a strong slate of indie docs and producing some of their own, higher-profile works. Still, this is always a tricky genre to navigate: for every noble award-winner like The Thin Blue Line, a lurid alternative is likely to pop up in your recommendations. (Please, Netflix, don’t make me watch Josef Fritzl: Story of a Monster.)
For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then, to help separate the truly compelling offerings from their trashier counterparts, check out the list we’ve compiled of the best true crime documentaries available on Netflix.
Director: Theo Love
In 2010, ten churches were destroyed in and around Tyler, Texas. The cause was fire, determined early on to be the result of arson, and the tragedies sent shockwaves through a series of small towns populated by God-fearing families who consider church a cornerstone of daily life. In Little Hope Was Arson, Theo Love conducts interviews with pastors, townspeople, investigators, the perpetrators and their loved ones, capturing a close-knit community with an underlying turmoil. Love, especially, is able to reveal unseen depths in the two arsonists, inscrutable young men damaged by trauma, drugs and a feeling of having been forsaken. Once they’re found guilty and sentenced, the film then begins to ask its most interesting questions: not about guilt and innocence, but questions of what faith means, what forgiveness can be, and what the church must do—for the community, yes, but mostly for its most troubled congregants. “A church is not the building, but the people,” Love’s subjects tell us over and over, all the while struggling to practice what they preach.
14. The Fear of 13
Director: David Sington
Sington’s The Fear of 13 has a unique vision often not associated with (though probably well suited for) true crime, applying a stark, poetic narrative style to a fairly run-of-the-mill criminal justice story. Death row inmate Nick Yarris sits in a dark room, like in a black box theater, and recounts his story. The film relies almost entirely on Yarris’s charisma and gift for storytelling—developed during the years he spent educating himself in prison—with just the occasional visual or sonic flourish. It’s a risky strategy, but it pays off: The delights of The Fear of 13 lie in Yarris’s elegantly rendered anecdotes in which death row inmates sing in the dark, a bathroom break provides an opportunity for a nail-biting escape and he shares palpable joy in learning new words like “triskaidekaphobia.” Though Sington leaves the viewer context-less for most of his film—Is Yarris telling the truth? Is he really on death row? Is he guilty or not?—he answers all in due time, but not before taking viewers on a pleasure of a ride.
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s dubious journalistic intentions and doe-eyed curiosity, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola
Director: James D. Solomon
The Witness begins with a well-known story: that of Kitty Genovese, famous for her 1964 murder in Kew Gardens, Queens, allegedly witnessed by 38 neighbors who stood by and did nothing—one that’s become something of a tall tale, often cited as a tragic indication of selfish urban America at its worst. But Kitty’s brother Bill was never quite satisfied with the story, so he decided to get to the bottom of it. Solomon’s films follows him as he conducts a series of uncomfortable interviews with former Kew Gardens residents and friends of Kitty’s, most of whom vehemently dispute the “38” theory. Armed with their testimony, Genovese plunges deeper into the now-hazy logistics of the story, even tracing its origins to The New York Times. It may all seem too little too late, but The Witness isn’t really about the case so much as it is about Bill Genovese himself, a tenacious Vietnam vet whose entire life was shaped by his sister’s murder. As Bill attempts to understand his obsession, he learns more and more about Kitty, the sister he idolized but never really knew.
Director: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives.
Director: Errol Morris
Like Amanda Knox, Errol Morris’s Tabloid concerns the media’s fascination with stories of women, sex and violence—except Tabloid’s subject, Joyce McKinney, who was arrested in 1977 for kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary, makes it so much harder than Knox does to advocate for her innocence. Is she a sweet, innocent woman? Is she a lunatic, a criminal mastermind? Is she all of this? Morris can’t seem to decide: The absurd story is told through interviews with co-conspirators, reporters and other relevant voices, but none is as captivating as the interviews with McKinney, who comes across as articulate, funny and ultimately believable…though one can’t ignore the feeling of being had. Morris’s films are often about the search for truth, but Tabloid upends that formula by presenting a Rashomon-style tale in which truth seems to be elastic, nebulous. Tabloid, then, is not so much a critique of tabloid media as it is its own form of tabloid, presenting a gleeful whirlwind of fact and fiction that’s entertaining despite—or because of—our reservations.
Director: John Greenhalgh
Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving.
Director: David Turnley
A film that fits all too well within our country’s current mood, Shenandoah revolves around xenophobia and economic hardship in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. In 2008, four white teenagers (all star high school football players) encountered a Mexican immigrant named Luis Ramirez walking with his fiancé’s sister in a park. An altercation ensued and the drunken teens beat him to death, yelling threats and racial slurs—and police, not wanting to tarnish the name of the town’s popular football program, did their best to cover up the crime. Turnley’s film gives a heartbreaking glimpse of life in Shenandoah, a former coal town where opportunities are few, and tensions between the old guard and newer immigrant communities run high. Through interviews with one of the perpetrators, his parents, Ramirez’s American fiancé and countless locals, Turnley avoids broad generalizations, instead taking pains to highlight the struggles of like communities, demonstrating how the collapse of prosperity can so easily lead to the rise of misunderstanding, fear, and, ultimately, hatred of the Other.
Year: 1992; 2003
Director: Nick Broomfield
Though not for the faint of heart, Nick Broomfield’s two studies of famed serial killer Aileen Wuornos combined provide one of the most intimate, interesting portraits of a killer ever committed to film. Perhaps an heir of sorts to In Cold Blood, the two Aileen films together don’t attempt to argue for her innocence, but rather to get to the bottom of who she is, and what went wrong in her life (and later, her defense) to land her in the execution chamber. By itself, the 1992 film is tantalizingly incomplete, mostly following Wuornos’s manipulative “adoptive” mother and bonehead hippie lawyer as they essentially throw her life away. It’s Life and Death of a Serial Killer that really packs a punch. Wuornos, coming across as honest and even likable in the earlier film, has become sadly paranoid and defensive since landing on death row. Broomfield sticks to her side anyway, delving into her horrific childhood and troubled adulthood by talking to friends, neighbors and even her aloof biological mother. Like Capote’s masterpiece before it, Broomfield’s film reminds us that murderers are human, too—maybe even humans who, abused by family and society from an early age, were never given a chance to be anything but doomed.
Director: David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley
At first, Who Took Johnny seems like a rather unassuming little documentary, looking back at the case of Johnny Gosch, the twelve-year-old paperboy who disappeared in 1982 without a trace, never to be found. It follows Johnny’s mother, Noreen Gosch, whose efforts after her son’s disappearance contributed to the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Noreen is an eccentric woman, but it’s only about a half hour into the film that it becomes apparent she could be a less-than-reliable narrator. The filmmakers follow Noreen down rabbit holes, pursuing horrifying-yet-surprisingly-plausible theories about what happened to Johnny, told in part by another strange character, convicted sex offender Paul Bonacci, who claims to have been present during the kidnapping. A full 35 years later, Johnny’s case remains staggering in its mystery: How could a boy go missing in a split second on a busy morning, with witnesses present? And how could he never be found? Who Took Johnny can’t find answers, but what it does find is deeply unsettling.
Director: Bart Layton
The short version is this: In 1994, thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay goes missing in Texas, and then, in 1997, Nicholas pops up in Spain, speaking French and claiming to have suffered unspeakable trauma. Overjoyed, the Barclays fly him to San Antonio to rejoin his old life. Nicholas is obviously different—his eyes, his ears, his accent—but the family, damaged with a troubled history, doesn’t doubt him until five months later, when a persistent P.I. discovers the truth: This is not Nicholas Barclay at all, but a twenty-three-year-old “serial imposter” named Frederic Bourdin. Layton’s film delivers a stellar telling of an already-great story, with a creeping sense of foreboding throughout. We know Bourdin is the bad guy, but what about Nicholas’s family? Did they really not know this was an imposter, or was Bourdin’s charade mutually beneficial? The Imposter explores these mysteries carefully, using fragmented reenactments and interviews with the peculiar, fascinating characters on both sides to show that no true story is ever exactly what it seems.
Director: Matthew Heineman
Matthew Heineman’s award-winning Cartel Land necessitates a focus on both crime and politics in equal measure. Following two vigilante groups fighting against powerful drug cartels—namely, the Mexican state of Michoacán’s Autodefensas, led by Dr. José Mireles, and Arizona Border Recon, led by American military vet Tim Foley—the film is somewhat lopsided in its presentation, as Mireles and his group are vastly more interesting than their American counterparts, meaning that Heineman spends much of the film on the streets with Autodefensas as they fight to take back their neighborhoods from the cartels. Led by the charismatic Mireles, their inspiring story quickly careens off course. Who are the good guys? transforms by the end of the film to the much more existential question, Are there any good guys? Somehow, in less than two hours, Heineman manages to tell a remarkably complex story while refusing to provide us with heroes, villains or easy answers. It’s in the shades of gray that Cartel Land finds its story, painting a frustrating portrait of our times.
Director: Moira Demos, Laura Ricciardi
Whether or not we reach consensus on Steven Avery’s guilt, viewers of Netflix sensation Making a Murderer can probably agree on one thing: It’s an instant true crime classic. Demos and Ricciardi have everything a storyteller could want: class struggle; a pair of virtuous, Atticus Finch-esque defense attorneys; incompetent police galore; and a creepy, power-hungry prosecutor—all acting in the shadow of small-town politics and socioeconomic vendettas. Of course, in the wrong hands, even these narrative gifts could be squandered, but Demos and Ricciardi succeed in their dogged attention to detail and pace. What could have been squished into two hours is drawn out into 10 effective episodes, shifting from Avery’s first overturned conviction to his second trial to the plight of his railroaded nephew Brendan Dassey. Like The Thin Blue Line before it, Making a Murderer’s purpose is not simply advocating for one man, it’s exposing an often ugly, broken system based on petty grudges and sheer carelessness. It’s at times harrowing, at times inspiring, at times despairing—and always outraged.
Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog’s film takes a hard look at the death penalty through the lens of a triple homicide committed in Texas in 2000. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, then 18, killed three people over a car. Perry got the death penalty while Burkett, aided by an emotional plea from his father, only received life. As we all know by now, Herzog is a master of the bare-boned interview, and with his guidance, the subjects in Into the Abyss speak emotionally, profoundly, even poetically about their circumstances and their views—eventually shedding light on so many aspects of crime and punishment in the United States. The cycle of violence and incarceration in families and communities, the devastation of loss, and, perhaps most strikingly, the toll capital punishment takes on those people hired to carry it out—Herzog’s eye for interesting characters and empathetic touch as an interviewer turn an ugly subject into something unexpectedly vital. Herzog’s intention is never to push an anti-death penalty agenda, but it’s hard to imagine one could watch his film and not feel, at the very least, deeply conflicted about a position any different.
Director: Errol Morris
A little after midnight on Nov. 28, 1976, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko made a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver pulled a handgun and shot him five times. The car sped off into the night while Turko fired hopelessly in its wake and Wood died at her feet. A cop killer was on the loose in Dallas. Turko’s recollections of the driver were meager, and 50 investigators worked through the sparse clues without a single witness. But less than a month later, on Dec. 21, Dallas police arrested Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. Though Adams claimed his innocence, a jury found him guilty and the judge handed him the death sentence. The man once branded in court as “Charles Manson” was safely locked away. Dallas breathed again. Nine years later, in 1985, a documentarian named Errol Morris drifted into town from New York. Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams; he was in Dallas to speak to a doctor. By the time Morris left three years later, he had freed an innocent man, identified a murderer, uncovered widespread corruption and earned death threats, law suits and debt. He had also made one of the finest documentary films of all time—a nimbly stylized and obsessive pursuit of truth; a study in and a shrug to the pitfalls of myopia; the Serial podcast before podcasts ever existed; an epic story of life, death and the misuse of power that has repercussions to this day. He called it The Thin Blue Line. —Neil Forsyth