The seeds for the contemporary taste of ‘true crime’ is one that has steadily grown from the ashes of such riveting fictional mysteries as ABC’s Lost along with David Lynch’s classic crime drama, Twin Peaks. Throw that into a melting pot together with the popular interest of reality TV as viewers seek ‘authentic’ stories, and the true-crime genre is born. A facet of filmmaking that deals in detailing gruesome murders and strange disappearances many of which remain unsolved.
It’s certainly a questionable obsession that has been fueled by Netflix’s multiple TV series including Tiger King, Making a Murderer and Don’t F**K with Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer, with each new addition to the sub-genre sparking great social media interest.
Presenting interesting cases of violence and deceit, many of these documentaries, however, span multiple hours and episodes, inflating each minor clue into a mountain of ‘evidence’.
Cinema has been making such true crime documentaries for decades, though granted not always with the same snappy editing and high budget, bringing disturbing cases of civil injustice to light.
Such documentaries range from Cinéma vérité efforts to expose despicable practises to strange retrospective reconstructions, though each of the following ten films will have you on the edge of your seat, asking questions in your mind long after the film.
10 true-crime best documentary films
10. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
Released in 2008, Dear Zachary carries many similarities to contemporary tales of true-crime, for better and for worse, deconstructing a truly shocking tale with broad strokes and a little too much melodrama.
Deciding to memorialise his murdered friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne tells the story of Andrew Bagby, a 28-year old man who was murdered by his pregnant ex-girlfriend who fled to Canada while on bail. It’s a shocking and disturbing tale that assembles home movies and interviews to immortalise the life of Andrew, whilst also leading the viewer down a genuinely surprising trail of breadcrumbs.
9. The Killing of America (Sheldon Renan, 1982)
Perhaps more interesting in retrospect than it ever was during its release in 1982, Sheldon Renan’s documentary is less a film about one specific crime, instead, it focuses on the whole scope of modern American violence, looking into serial killers, war and much more.
An exploitation film made to capitalise on the craze of the “mondo movie” that depicted violent pseudo-documentary topics, The Killing of America has since become something of a fascinating sociological document.
Genuinely disturbing and featuring some truly violent images, this is graphic true-crime that focuses on assassinations and the battle for civil rights during the 20th century, creating a tornado of cultural violence that would lead to 1999’s shocking Columbine massacre.
8. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
From one extreme to another, Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is a landmark of Cinéma vérité filmmaking, adopting a raw observational style that differs greatly from the narrative linearity of modern documentaries.
Portraying the occupants of Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts mental institution, Wiseman films individuals holed up in empty cells, publicly stripped naked and force-fed. It’s a dark, disturbing watch, particularly as it’s all filmed in factual monochrome.
Exposing the vile conditions of the institution Wiseman’s film is also crucially important, however, proving an integral piece of evidence in the closing of multiple psychiatric facilities just like Bridgewater State Hospital.
7. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson, 2006)
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the definitive documentary on the subject, depicts the horrific tale of the cult, the Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones, who, in 1978, encouraged over 900 people to commit suicide.
With so much to unpack about the story that rocked the modern world, Stanley Nelson does well to wrangle the source material, neatly laying out the story of the Peoples Temple whilst creating a comprehensive view of its impact. A harrowing viewing experience, the story of Jim Jones is one of the most notorious tales of the cult of personality, and whilst it is often a difficult watch, it is also undeniably fascinating.
6. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
From HBO Films, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills follows the trials of the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers accused of the sexual mutilation of three pre-pubescent boys as a part of an alleged satanic ritual in Arkansas.
Released in two parts, the near three-hour exploration details the backgrounds, murders and aftermath of the fascinating case that suffocated America in the early ‘90s. What resulted was something of a moral panic, as the satanic killings were thought to have been inspired by horror films, video games and even the books of Stephen King.
This is more than just a fascinating criminal trial, it’s also a valuable piece of sociological study.
5. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
One of the strangest and most curious true-crime stories to explore the disturbing underbelly of small-town America, Andrew Jarecki’s documentary looks into the peculiar Friedman family, harbouring a surprising, sickening secret.
The seemingly typical, middle-class family is thrown into turmoil once the father and youngest son of the family are arrested and accused of several crimes related to child pornography. The true brilliance of Capturing the Friedmans is in its presentation, weaving an enigmatic puzzle using home video footage and curious talking head interviews to create a true sense of uncertainty. Who can you believe?
4. Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2011)
A fascinating documentary about a life lived, forgotten and regretfully mourned, Carol Morley immortalises the life of Joyce Vincent, a woman who died alone in her bedsit in London, only for her body to be discovered three years later.
A story unlike any other, when police officers finally went into Joyce Vincent’s flat to investigate a strange smell they found the TV still on and Christmas presents still wrapped from three years ago whilst Joyce lay dead on the sofa. Speaking to friends and acquaintances, the film explores how such a death could happen in the modern age of technology whilst looking into the extraordinary life of Joyce Vincent herself. It’s a deeply moving viewing experience.
3. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
From the outside looking in The Imposter looks like a simple, if bizarre, true-crime story about a young man in Spain who claims to be the 16-year-old missing son of a family in Texas. Dig deeper, however, and the story becomes truly extraordinary.
Brilliantly shot with clever reconstruction scenes, The Imposter is elevated by the incredible honesty of the imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin, who despite having committed multiple counts of identity theft is happy to discuss his experiences. As the story spirals out of control Bart Layton tackles the subject matter with a masterful approach to the form, using multiple interviews to create an intriguing tale, whilst also building a suspenseful thriller in the background.
2. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1998)
In many ways, the first theatrical true-crime documentary, this classic film from the influential filmmaker Errol Morris would help to popularise the sub-genre as we know it today. In style and delivery but, morseo, in its use of reconstructions and interview techniques.
The Thin Blue Line details the wrongful imprisonment of a man convicted for murder in the midst of a corrupt justice system in Dallas, Texas. Regarded as a truly important piece of filmmaking for the development of the medium, as well as the release of the wrongfully imprisoned individual in real life, Morris’ film is an iconic piece of political filmmaking.
With a pioneering style that would later influence television and documentary film, Morris evokes a genuine sense of mystery in his own investigatory search for meaning.
1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, 2012)
Creative, endlessly rich and deeply disturbing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s celebrated documentary feels like the early work of Werner Herzog as it fearlessly digs deep down into the unknown with an observing eye.
Blurring the line between reality and fiction, The Act of Killing follows the modern life of a former Indonesian death-squad leader as he is challenged with reenacting his mass-killings in an array of cinematic genres. Such a set-up leads to some dreamlike, surreal depictions of death in the form of outlandish musical numbers led by the eccentric, psychologically disturbed minds of mass murderers. Fascinatingly engineered by Oppenheimer and Cynn, the film’s participants re-enact their atrocities in a frank matter-of-fact manner, making for a chilling viewing experience.
You’ve truly never seen anything like this.