The Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix (2018)

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The Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix (2018)

More than 50 years after the publishing of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a pioneering work of the true crime genre, we’re experiencing 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), the past couple years could be considered 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 us 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.

little-hope-arson.jpg20. Little Hope Was Arson
Year: 2014
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. —Maura McAndrew

fear-13.jpg19. The Fear of 13
Year: 2015
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. —Maura McAndrew

tabloid-doc.jpg18. Tabloid
Year: 2010
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. —Maura McAndrew

team-foxcatcher.jpg17. Team Foxcatcher
Year: 2016
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. —Maura McAndrew

aileen-wuornos-broomfield.jpg16. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
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. —Maura McAndrew

making-murderer-netflix.jpg15. Making a Murderer
Year: 2015
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. —Maura McAndrew

into-the-abyss_.jpg14. Into the Abyss
Year: 2011
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. —Maura McAndrew

called-morgan-poster.jpg13. I Called Him Morgan
Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson

wild-wild-country-movie-poster.jpg12. Wild Wild Country
Year: 2018
Directors: Maclain Way, Chapman Way
Some documentaries are more dedicated than others to telling a story from multiple and opposing viewpoints. Wild Wild Country’s primary interviewees—some members of the cult, some residents and law enforcement agents in the Oregon county where the Rajneeshpuram commune was located—seem to have inhabited two separate realities: If you made a Venn diagram, there would be virtually no overlap. In fact, nearly four decades later, the devotees of guru Bhagawan Sri Rajneesh still appear to inhabit a separate reality. Even the ones who fled the cult. Even the ones who were indicted for everything from biological warfare and voter fraud to attempted murder. In the early 1980s, a guru with an ashram in Poona, India relocated to an 80,000-acre ranch outside the minuscule town of Antelope, Oregon, and then proceeded to be in the news constantly for one crazy thing or another. By the mid-’80s they had disbanded, after a series of legal scandals that ranged from the weird to the outright horrible. Wild Wild Country tells their story in lavish detail, and since they were such a media curiosity at the time there is an incredible wealth of archival footage with which to work. It’s a rambling, if generally thorough, document of a strange historical event, largely recounted by the people who were there, which rarely takes sides and certainly leaves open to interpretation which truth holds more water. Wild Wild Country’s takeaway questions are certainly timely enough: How do we, as a nation, handle immigration and integration? More importantly, why do we make the choices we make in that space? What happens to the hard-and-fast constitutional argument for separation of church and state when a religion is allowed to form its own government and arm its own military? Is it religious persecution when you’re investigated for an attempted murder you actually did attempt? Do the complaints of one side invalidate the grievances of the other? What emerges clearly is that lies are often as serious as salmonella, or the bacteria-vectoring beavers the cult allegedly tried to put into the Antelope reservoir. Once there’s literal and figurative poison in the well, it becomes difficult to cast yourself as either persecuted or enlightened. —Amy Glynn

amanda-knox.jpg11. Amanda Knox
Year: 2016
Directors: 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. —Maura McAndrew

35-Netflix-Docs_2015-brothers-keeper.jpg10. Brother’s Keeper
Year: 1992
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
There’s an alleged crime at the center of Brother’s Keeper: whether or not Delbert Ward, a 59-year-old farmer from Munnsville, New York, is guilty of murdering his older brother William. But that’s not really what Brother’s Keeper is about. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky instead focus on the wide fissure between urban and rural American cultures in the late-1980s and early-1990s, examining the way the three remaining Ward brothers, essentially outcasts in their community prior to William’s death, are increasingly embraced by Munnsville as the media descends upon the town to report on Delbert’s trial. The mystery here is not about whether or not William was murdered; the mystery is what lies at the heart of community bonds and national identity, and how allegiances change as communities grow larger. —Mark Abraham

witness-doc.jpg9. The Witness
Year: 2016
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. —Maura McAndrew

wormwood-movie-poster.jpg8. Wormwood
Year: 2017
Director: Errol Morris
Wormwood, the Netflix miniseries/theatrical film from documentarian Errol Morris, covers many topics: the untimely death of a father and the havoc such an event wreaks on his offspring; the CIA’s history of experimenting with mind-controlling drugs like LSD; journalistic ethics and the responsibility a reporter has to his or her sources. Most of all, though, Wormwood is about deception: How far and how well will someone (or some government entity) go to keep secrets buried? And what can we deduce from the stories that inevitably leak out over time? Morris himself is well aware of the conundrum he’s got himself and his viewers in while trying to piece together the circumstances of how, exactly, biological warfare scientist and CIA employee Frank Olson’s life came to a sudden, bloody end when he plummeted 13 stories from a hotel room window in New York in November 1953. And he’s trying a different strategy to get to the bottom of it. Setting aside the Interrotron filming technique he’s used in projects ranging from his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War to Apple commercials, this time Morris relies on what he calls the “everything bagel” approach to investigating the Olson case. In Wormwood, he mixes home movies, a lot of Shakespearean imagery, one-on-one interviews with the likes of Olson’s eldest son, Eric, a clinical psychologist, and recreations based on government documents, which feature a cast of well-regarded actors—Peter Sarsgaard as the ill-fated Frank, Molly Parker as his stoic wife, and Bob Balaban as a shady “allergist” hired by Frank’s employers. The project becomes a lesson in struggling to determine just how much distrust we can still have for the very people we’re supposed to trust to get the answers we need. Clinical psychologist Eric Olson knows he shouldn’t believe the government, particularly when they come forward decades later to explain some of the circumstances of his dad’s death. Yet, like Hamlet taking on Claudius in the Shakespeare play from which this miniseries gets its name, Olson must keep digging to avenge his dad lest he, himself, go mad. But what does this mean for the audience watching Eric’s story play out on screen? Morris has cast actors to recreate scenes from the events depicted by the U.S. government that he, himself, doesn’t necessarily believe are true. So why are we to trust him? —Whitney Friedlander

tower-doc-jpg7. Tower
Year: 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
The 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting ought to be a footnote in American history and not a reference point for contemporary national woes. That Tower, documentary filmmaker Keith Maitland’s animated chronicle-cum-reenactment of that massacre, should feel as relevant and of the moment as it does, then, is startling, or perhaps just disheartening. It was 50 years ago this past August that Charles Whitman ascended the university tower with a cache of guns, killed three people inside, and went on to kill another 11 plus an unborn baby over the course of an hour and a half. Back in those days, a public act of violence on this level was an anomaly piercing the veil of our sense of security. Today, it’s just Sunday. Tower wraps the horror Whitman wrought in a rich, rotoscoped blanket, the vibrancy of Maitland’s palette lending urgency and vitality to the horror he and his cast recreate on screen. —Andy Crump

24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg6. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
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 weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, 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

who-took-johnny.jpg5. Who Took Johnny
Year: 2014
Directors: 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. —Maura McAndrew

strong-island-movie-poster.jpg4. Strong Island
Year: 2017
Director: Yance Ford
African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (Can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness fuels its astounding strength. —Tim Grierson

casting-jonbenet-poster.jpg3. Casting JonBenet
Year: 2017
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson

cartel-land-cover.jpg2. Cartel Land
Year: 2015
Director: Matthew Heineman
Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. Director Matthew Heineman’s film centers on Dr. José Mireles, who decided to fight back against the cartels oppressing his community by creating the vigilante group, Autodefensas. Liberating one occupied town after another another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare nonfiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager

thin-blue-line.jpg1. The Thin Blue Line
Year: 1988
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