While the human obsession with true crime might be innate, the nonfiction genre is relatively new to be taken seriously. With the recent success of the HBO series, The Jinx, and the hit podcast, Serial, true crime seems to be on everybody’s minds.
Investigating crime might be inherently interesting for anybody with a taste for documentary, but there’s a moral and ethical standard that comes with any story of this kind. Also, taste plays a huge factor in whether these films stray into camp or exploitation.
News hours have made their livings off society’s thirst for criminal behavior and it’s a fine line between simply reporting a dramatic occurrence and digging into the mechanics of how those illegal activities take shape.
As such, an impactful, lasting true crime film has to work double-time to be respectful to the people involved, diligent about the facts, and ultimately entertaining. One wrong move and a crime film can get lost in the vortex of multitudes that have sunk to the trash heap.
The following list explores nonfiction from multiple angles. Some, like The Thin Blue Line and The Central Park Five, take on wrongful convictions and the ensuing public outrage, while others excavate a botched investigation in search of a greater truth, as seen in Capturing the Friedmans.
Others, like The Iceman, are crime films by process of possessing a central character who has dedicated a life to murder and having a story that’s a window into a fractured psychology.
We’ve also included some that are rarely considered true crime films, Resurrect Dead: The Msytery of the Toynbee Tiles and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, that take on subjects who are only technically committing the sorts of misconduct synonymous with standard crime stories, however, their makers smartly package them with similar mysterious handling.
13. The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman (2001)
Two separate HBO-produced documentaries made a decade apart, The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman is a first person story of a killer-for-hire who is credited with being one of the most prolific murderers in American history. Richard Kuklinski is said to have killed between 100 to 250 men from 1948 to 1986, each on a contract from the mafia.
In this documentary, Kuklinski tells his side of the story after years of silence. Called ‘The Iceman’ because of his cold and calculated demeanor, nothing less is offered here in claustrophobic talking head frames that examine Kuklinski’s unflinching face.
He recounts the story of his childhood, a growing connection with the mafia, and a philosophy of only doing his job as efficiently as possible. He speaks with candidness while discussing his attitude that hurting people is the only way to get them to respect you. “Nice guys finish last,” is a theme that Kuklinski relates continuously.
In the second part, produced ten yeasr after the first, with Kuklinski now imprisoned for over a decade, the killer has calmed a bit, gaining even charisma and regret. Where he comes off as black and despondent initially, he now seems to have gained perspective and openness, with less of a chip on his shoulder.
In a sense, Errol Morris’ interrotron method of first person recollections may owe a debt to The Iceman. The lack of directorial interference or trickery works to allow the man to be both as open and evasive as he chooses while also highlighting the terror he inflicts without effort. The camera takes on the point of view of an observer in the room with this frightening being, scared to do anything more than listen.
12. The Imposter (2012)
Rarely if ever does the criminal become the key to solving a far greater crime. In The Imposter, the titular character at the center does just that.
For first portion of the story, filmmaker Bart Layton gets the viewer on the side of his quirky, squirrelly, conman protagonist, Frederic Bourdin, by allowing him to spin us grandiose tales of fitting into the identities of others in order to commit crimes or evade authorities. He explains that his motive stems from a broken childhood that left him lost and, obviously, identity-less.
Like the very best conmen, Frederic feigns innocence by seeming too charming, too clueless, and too backwards to actually be ahead on a deception of intelligent adults. And until the very end it’s difficult to know how much of these games Frederic understands or truly falls into. However, the fulcrum of the story strays from this dynamic, when Frederic finds himself a little too deep in a con he may not want to be a part of.
Central to The Impostor is the story of Frederic tricking a Texas family into thinking he is a young relative who disappeared years earlier. How he falls into such a scam is nothing short of dumb luck, or as we slowly figure out, perhaps a good bit of conniving on both the sides of the game. The con artist’s story of kidnapping in Europe is elaborate, though conspicuously simple. Too simple.
Frederic has a French accent, which he lies and says he picked up during years held captive. The family buys it. He doesn’t look the same, but years have passed and he’s been under stress. The family buys it. He looks older than the relative would be, his eye color is different, his demeanor has transformed and his mannerisms have changed, but he’s been under the stress of a foreign land.
These things, he explains, can happen. The family buys it. It takes a bullshitter to smell bullshit and miraculously Frederic, along with the narrative itself, starts to realize this latest con is too good to be true. At some point, Frederic asks one of those kinds of questions that has gotten him caught in the past. In this case, “What really did happen that boy I’m pretending to be?”
11. The Central Park Five (2012)
By the time The Central Park Five arrived in theaters in 2012, almost a decade had passed since five young men were exonerated for the rape that makes up the core story. To most, the case was over, the real criminal had been brought to justice, and there was nothing more to explore. That is, those still living with the scars were forgotten by a world that had moved on.
The true crime at the center of Ken and Sarah Burns’ film is how easily a highly publicized case can be brushed under the rug, with many still assuming the wrongfully accused were the true perpetrators and no justice being served for extensive time spent unfairly behind bars.
Central Park Five focused on an event in New York at the tail end of a tumultuous 1980s that took the city by storm causing the media and the government to pin the crime on black teenagers thought to be near the scene, something that multiple parties used as fodder for fear-mongering and a need for city clean up.
Before ever seeing a courtroom, the city had decided these kids were guilty. So guilty in fact that the pressure was one of the many ways the film details that NYPD interrogators forced confessions that ultimately signed the boys’ fates.
The film indicts a legal system that spends its time seeking out a confirmation bias in order to provide a sense of status quo to citizens. Black boys acting out as hood rats in the middle of the night is a created construct that the poor kids fell into simply by being the wrong place at the wrong time.
The second portion of The Central Park Five portrays a city with little interest in atonement for the sin of taking the formative years away from innocent children. An almost unspoken string of racism threads from the very moment the crime has been committed all the way to a system hardly wanting to be bothered with assisting five men who are seen as likely throwaways anyhow.
To this very day Central Park at night is off limits to a white culture who was scared to death of what the media fed them after a bungled investigation. Lost in all the disgust of legalities is a victim who suffered a horrible event only to watch her misery become a lynchpin for profit and political goals.
10. Cropsey (2009)
The visceral line between documentary and fiction is rivaled in effect only by horror storytelling. Wherein precisely that same line is drawn when we fear our worst nightmares could become a reality. This is the stuff campfire stories are built upon. However, the effect is even greater when folded into an actual nonfiction narrative, which is precisely what directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio achieve with Cropsey.
At first a tale of a boogeyman-like urban legend in New York City, Cropsey transitions into the true story of a child kidnapper who lurked in Staten Island. In a sense, the film is the inverse of The Blair Witch Project in that it sets out to mythicize our nightmares while at once combining them with a very realistic event. It’s as if we’ve awoken from a bad dream only to find a killer standing over us in real life.
The combination of scary movies and documentary seems rather obvious when considering that found footage films have been built on the present tense immediacy of a real world crumbling under terrifying circumstances. John Carpenter used handheld camerawork to invoke naturalistic fear in Hallowee,n as did Tobe Hooper in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
What Cropsey gets right is what many others never touch upon. While some of the worst scenarios come seemingly out of nowhere, or the because of the obliviousness of ignorance, the even greater panic comes when the boogeyman we already fear turns out to be a living, breathing being right under our noses.
As humans, we are built to dread the worst, as when a serial killer is reported nearby. Very few are ever actually victims of their nightmares. But as Cropsey so creepily explores, some are.
9. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)
There’s only technically a crime at the core of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. That technicality involves a mysterious man who has been leaving stamps that read “TOYNBEE IDEA IN Kubrick’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” throughout the streets of Philadelphia and other cities along the Northeast of America.
However, filmmaker Jon Foy handles the material like it is one part noir and one part character exposé. Like the very best mysteries, the exposure will ostensibly occur to the perpetrator being hunted, but in reality it’s the story of the man doing the hunting that magnetizes.
Justin Duerr, a Philadelphian who has spent his life drifting and dabbling in drugs, finds himself fascinated by the sight of the tiles. Like a classic detective novel, Resurrect Dead joins Duerr as he’s just poking his feet into the water, only to then follow him through the twists and turns of how the tiles got where they are. Resurrect Dead is less about the destination than the spooky fun of the journey.
Paying attention to the science fiction obsession of both the target and the searcher, Foy intelligently weaves science-themed animation, electronic music, and sound effects into Duerr’s search.
In other hands this could have been a straight forward unraveling of the inscrutable man behind an equally enigmatic act of vandalism, however, Foy figures out quickly that this investigation not only enraptures his protagonist, but it may be his only path to getting his life on track.
In turn, the film also draws parallels between the lonely, hidden man whose only act of expression comes from tiling the streets of a city and the man who is hunting him down. Along the way, Duerr uncovers some spine-tingling finds such as how the man manages to tile the middle of a highway, along with his creepy shortwave radio station and his bizarre connection to a then young playwright named David Mamet.
Criminally under-seen, Resurrect Dead is an essential contemporary documentary for its real time crime investigation and innate understanding of characters in search of purpose.
8. The True Crime Cinema of Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Tales of a Grim Sleeper)
Nick Broomfield, the provocateur, artist, journalist with a lens and boom pole in your face, transcends the impression of any one of his pictures. Not that the crime-based films don’t each stand with their own unique merits, but taken together the effect of Broomfield’s work outshines any one particular exploration.
Using a two man crew, himself holding a mic and asking questions on the run along with a cameraman, Broomfield has mastered the on the fly, electronic news-gathering approach to investigation.
Often Broomfield plants himself as a stranger into a highly suspect location, as when he approaches Suge Knight in a prison courtyard to question him about the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls or when he lands in South Central LA questioning streetwalkers and drug dealers about their knowledge of a serial killer who once lived in their neighborhood.
The effect of Broomfield’s work is going along for a ride that we as audiences often wish we had the courage to go on in real life. As such, there’s no presumption that a neat ending will be discovered, therefore it is the ‘in the shit’ approach that makes Broomfield’s documentaries so intoxicating.
Before Charlize Theron immortalized her in Monster, Aileen Wuornos was the startling subject of not one but two Broomfield documentaries that set out to get inside the mind of the rare female serial murderer, a killer with seemingly the most deliberate motivations.
Accused often for his bludgeoning curiosity and preoccupation with clickbait, headline-grabbing controversy, Broomfield is at worst a gossip columnist with a camera. However, his research is right there for the world to see, which makes the moments he discovers impossible to dismiss.
There was never a chance Suge Knight would admit to involvement in the highly publicized rapper killings, but we can watch his face when the questions are asked and thus from such reactions form answers he avoids giving. If there’s one true crime filmmaker who brings the viewer right up into his self-reflexive process it’s Nick Broomfield.