The world is a strange and dangerous place. And for some masochistic reason, I like to remind myself of that by watching any true crime documentary recommended to me. The buzz generated by these unsettling and often violent tales can go viral quickly, as it did in the cases of series such as HBO's The Jinx and the Netflix original Making A Murderer. But there are plenty of true crime documentary films that pack the same amount of narrative punch in a smaller and more quickly consumed package. These are 19 true crime documentary films you have to see to believe.
True crime doesn't necessarily mean a murder investigation, though sometimes it does. But expand your definition of the genre and you can learn about the environmental horrors of the ivory trade, the friendship and business partnership that kept the '60s counter-culture in LSD, and how a con man pulled one over on the elite wine industry. All that really matters is that each of these gripping stories is true, even if the filmmaker or filmmakers leaves it up to you to decide who's responsible, who's on the side of right, and what should be done next.
1. Amanda Knox (Netflix)
This fascinating recap of the long and twisted road to justice for the accused, convicted, and then acquitted Amanda Knox will tell you what the tabloids couldn't.
2. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (Netflix)
Made with love by a friend, this enraging and heartrending film is a tribute to a man who was taken before he was able to meet his son, possibly by his son's mother.
3. The Ivory Game (Netflix)
This is a documentary that plays like an adventure film. It's war between poachers and wildlife activists to harvest or protect the coveted tusks of African elephants.
4. Capturing The Friedmans (Amazon DVD)
The Jinx director Andrew Jarecki uses interviews and their own home movies to explore the angry community and murky case surrounding the Friedmans, a father and son accused of molesting several young boys (both men pleaded guilty and served jail time).
5. Fight For Justice: David & Me (Netflix)
A high school student strikes up a pen pal relationship with an inmate convicted of murder and becomes convinced of his innocence over time. Fight For Justice chronicles Ray Klonsky's efforts to see his friend David McCallum's name cleared.
6. Team Foxcatcher (Netflix)
The Steve Carell movie Foxcatcher made some alterations to the true story of a DuPont heir becoming victim to his own obsession. Fill in the facts with this documentary about the murder of the brother of DuPont's former beneficiary and his best hope for wrestling fame.
7. The Fear Of 13 (Netflix)
Death Row inmate Nick Yarris tells his own story from start to finish in this sparse but engrossing documentary.
8. Crazy Love (Amazon)
Love and abuse are often confused, as in the case of Linda Riss, who was blinded on the orders of her own boyfriend and decided to stay with him anyway.
9. Sour Grapes (Netflix)
As a person who can't taste every note advertised in any wine, I find something pretty satisfying in Rudy Kurniawan's successful effort to convince celebrated wine connoisseurs to shell out millions for a bargain basement product.
10. The Witness (Netflix)
Kitty Genovese's name became synonymous with the alleged lack of humanity in big cities when she was violently murdered in earshot of a few dozens New York bystanders, none of whom came to her aid. In this piece, her brother interviews as many of those individuals he can to get to the bottom of his own family tragedy.
11. The Central Park Five (Amazon)
Ken Burns collaborates with daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon to illuminate the blatant racism that led to the unjust conviction of five young black men for the murder of a Central Park jogger.
12. Whitey: The United States Of America Vs. James J. Bulger (Netflix)
If you love The Departed, check out this profile of the Boston crime boss turned FBI informant who inspired Scorcese's gritty crime drama.
13. Who Took Johnny?
A cold case gets a fresh look in this Kickstarter-funded doc about a boy who vanished from his Iowa paper route.
14. West Of Memphis (Amazon, iTunes)
Another film that explores the way prejudice and preconception hinders justice sets its sights on the West Memphis Three, the antisocial and heavy metal-listening teenage boys who served 18 years for murder before their exoneration.
15. The Thin Blue Line (Hulu)
Errol Morris' 1988 film sets a standard for true crime documentary and helped bring about the release of its subject, wrongfully convicted Randall Dale Adams.
16. Cartel Land (Netflix)
The DEA and other law enforcement aren't the only agencies pushing back against Mexican drug cartels. Cartel Land highlights the high-risk work of anti-cartel vigilante groups.
17. Into The Abyss
If you can, look through Werner Herzog's unflinching eyes at a Death Row inmate in the days before his execution.
Named after an urban legend, this film investigates the disappearance of five young boys and reveals the terrifying truth that lies underneath the myth.
19. The Sunshine Makers (Amazon)
Two men make it their mission to supply mind-expanding hallucinogens to the hippie movement while somehow avoiding capture and prosecution.
True crime is only growing as a genre, so expect to see many more of these films hitting your favorite streaming services in the future.