Murder is bad, but the business of murder has never been better. The category of true crime, once limited to the occasional documentary collecting dust on a video store shelf, is now a billion-dollar industry. True crime podcasts are played during our daily commute, the ID Network recounts every grisly detail of past murders around the clock, and true crime limited series are now required viewing to keep up with water-cooler conversation.
While there is a somewhat unsettling quality to the popularity of the genre — not entirely unsurprising in a society that enthusiastically slows down to get a good look at a car wreck — there are some positives to these true crime narratives. At their best, true crime documentaries can provide a voice to the voiceless, tell a story of a great injustice and, once in a while, better the lives of victims.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the best true crime documentaries. What did we miss? Let us know in the comments, so everyone can add to their own list.
Thin Blue Line (1988)
Thin Blue Line sets the gold standard for what a true crime documentary should be. The film’s coverage of a police officer’s murder, the wrongful conviction that followed and the lies that allowed the ordeal to happen was so forceful that it overturned the ruling on the case. The Thin Blue Line is often credited with revolutionizing the genre of true crime documentaries, thanks in large part to director Errol Morris utilizing reenactments for dramatic and visual effect and a Philip Glass score that ratcheted up the tension as all the pieces of the story fell into place. Winning numerous awards and capturing the nation’s attention, the Thin Blue Line opened the door for the rest of the titles on this list.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
The story of Robert Durst, the eccentric heir to a real estate fortune, was one of those that hid in plain sight for years without garnering any real attention. A movie starring Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as his late wife released in 2010 to mild approval, but one big fan of the movie was the subject himself. Durst, who watched a fictional account of how he possibly murdered his wife, loved the movie so much that he called the director, and from there the documentary series Jinx was born. Let's just say that the end of the fascinating examination on Durst and the murders he may or may not have committed, Durst probably regretted making that call.
Making a Murderer (2015)
This is the one that made everyone in America an amateur detective for a few weeks and gave Netflix a new goldmine to exploit. The story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey as possible murderers of a missing photographer takes so many twists that it was common practice to pause the limited series to make sure it was indeed nonfiction. While never described as feel-good television, the series was so popular that it ushered in a second season (albeit with diminishing returns) that further explored the possible prejudice the Manitowoc County police had while investigating the murder in question. Making a Murderer's influence is still felt strongly on TV (and was parodied on shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), as every convoluted tale of murder and corruption hopes to capture a fraction of the series’ success.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
While numerous documentaries can be accused of leading the viewers down a path (we’re looking at you Michael Moore), Capturing the Friedmans impartially tells the story of a family destroyed by child molestation charges. Each time the audience is confident they have a grasp on the case, a new fact changes the perspective on all the events leading up to its reveal. Two generations of shame, denial and repressed urges are documented through interviews and the bizarre home movies of the Freidman family in the late '80s, leaving those who watch with just as many questions about what really happened all those years ago.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill (1996)
The murder of three boys in a rural town of Arkansas became national news at the time. Whenever you hear someone refer to murders committed by devil worshippers, they’re probably talking about this case. The three accused teenagers, otherwise known as the West Memphis Three, maintained their innocence, and clearly the filmmakers agreed. Following the success of Paradise Lost, two sequels were made throughout the years following up on the case and the fight to clear the names of the accused. As divisive to audiences as the case was to the town of West Memphis, Paradise Lost examines what happens when fear aligns with the need to bring justice to loved ones taken too soon.
Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
The events of Abducted in Plain Sight are so over-the-top insane that the plot could just as easily pass for an episode of a David Lynch movie. The film garnered a fair amount of festival buzz for its sensationalist story, and Netflix was smart to pick it up in 2019. The movie is easy to watch, yet impossible to explain to someone after you watch it. As the film explores both abductions of teenager Jan Broberg by her neighbor Robert Berchtold (yes, both), it simultaneously dissects the nuclear family structure. As each new detail emerges, another layer of the smiling Broberg family is peeled away, revealing how much damage one man could do to an entire family.
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The Imposter (2012)
If losing a child is the most devastating thing to happen to a family, finding out that same child is still alive years later is equally miraculous. This turns out to not be the case for a Texas family that learns the son they thought they lost years ago, Nicholas Barclay, is found inexplicably alive in Spain. Upon their reunion, things don’t seem quite right with the returning Barclay. His looks have changed considerably since they last saw him, and when he does speak, is that an accent that they hear? Sadness, lies, hope and a possible sinister act covered up all meet in this documentary that can be watched on YouTube.
Surviving R. Kelly (2019)
In 2008, singer R. Kelly was found not guilty of 14 counts of child pornography. Eleven years later, Lifetime debuted Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part docuseries in which several alleged victims of Kelly came forward about his alleged sex cult and sexual, verbal and physical abuse through the years. Kitti Jones, a former radio DJ from Dallas, was one of Kelly's alleged victims and has said she was under his "mind control." She said she went through "training" while dating Kelly, like having to ask for food and to use the restroom, standing up when he walked into a room, and said she wasn't allowed to watch TV. The docuseries is streaming on Hulu now.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Warning: This one is a tearjerker. This is the movie in which grown men with beards and construction worker scars say, “No thank you.” Dear Zachary follows the aftermath of the murder of Andrew Bagby by his ex-girlfriend Shirley Jane Turner. During the investigation, Turner reveals she is pregnant with Bagby’s baby, the titular Zachary. The film follows the case and provides details about the murder, but notably different from the rest of the titles on this list, it celebrates the person lost to an act of violence. The film was made to show a then unborn Zachary what people thought of his father through interviews, and all proceeds of the film went to a scholarship in Andrew Bagby's and Zachary Bagby’s names. Even this entry was a bummer. We’re not crying, you’re crying — leave us alone.
Don’t Fuck With Cats (2019)
When an anonymous man uploads a video to YouTube of himself murdering two cats, internet sleuths begin dedicating all of their time and energy to finding the man and bringing him to justice. In the three-part series streaming on Netflix, several crime-fighting Facebook users, cops and private investigators navigate their way to pinpointing the man's location, identity and motive, all while the murderer leaves behind a trail of movie-inspired hints.