The 13 Best Documentaries About True Crimes

7. Paradise Lost Series (2008- )

Paradise Lost The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys were reported missing in West Memphis, Arkansas and soon after found dead in a creek. Their bodies had been gruesomely beaten, cut open, and mutilated seemingly from torture. The event became national news as governmental officials and media outlets pointed to Satanic practices that may have led to these deaths.

Three older boys, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were arrested and convicted of the crimes. Like the Central Park Five, these boys were used as scapegoats in an effort to preserve the status quo of a society on the edge of anxiety.

Soon after their convictions, the trials were brought to task, with many, including those in Hollywood, coming to the aid of the boys, stating that unfair legal practices created a wrongful accusation. As it turned out, the ruling was reversed in 2011 and, after years in prison, the three men were finally released.

Comprised of three separate films made over a decade and a half, the Paradise Lost series (Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Revelations, and Purgatory) directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, was the first to the scene, rolling camera right after the murders had been discovered and, like The Thin Blue Line, is credited by many as the nonfiction picture which shed light on a wrongful conviction leading to exoneration.

The prize of Paradise Lost, beyond the legal ramifications, comes in the form of style and the three main characters. Using a Metallica score and hardcore styling, Paradise lost doesn’t attempt to subvert the practices many called Satanic but instead expose it as the gothic outlet which each boy did in fact identify with.

The point is that this conviction was not simply pinning horrible murders on boys but an effort to presume that music like Metallica’s, style that is outside the box, and free-thinking is synonymous with murder and misbehavior. The oppression of an idea is crucial to everything with which the Memphis Three became associated.

Damien Echols, the most vocal and recognizable of the three boys, is also the most grounded, adding a touch of charisma and philosophy to an otherwise dreary tale. Other films, such as West of Memphis by Amy Berg, have told the same story, but it’s the gritty present tense aggressiveness of Paradise Lost that arrived on the ground floor and most organically exposed its crime’s central injustices.


6. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary A Letter to a Son about His Father

Humbly constructed, Dear Zachary’s low budget style makes its final revelation that much more haunting. Presented at first as a filmed letter from a friend of a murdered father to his surviving young son, the story is seemingly a portrait of love and loss.

Director Kurt Kuenne uses talking head interviews that play like wedding testimonials about a man who was beloved by many and taken too soon at the hands of a crazy woman. The woman, at least at first, hasn’t been brought to trial, but she has fled to her homeland of Canada, where the murdered man’s parents are fighting both for extradition and to have the young son taken into a more stable situation.

That dark thread that simmers in the background of the opening moments slowly begins to absorb Dear Zachary as the audience begins to sense the tenseness of Zachary being in the hands of someone capable of horrible acts of violence. Not in the past, but in the very moment those testimonials are being recorded.

As a result of its smart construction, the inevitable twist in the end seems to unfold in real time. Just as we watch friends and relatives recollect humorous moments about a fallen friend, the activity that’s unsettled regarding his case still lives very much in the present. As such, Kuenne uses nonfiction’s ability to both transfix and sculpt time to the advantage of his overarching point.

Ultimately, this becomes a murder mystery, a character portrait, a triumphant portrayal of extraordinarily loving grandparents, and sadly a tragic plea for legal action. While the conclusion may be less shocking than maddening, Kuenne smartly never tips his hand.

Somehow, even as we feel the rage of the director himself, along with the moments of anger that slip out of Zachary’s grandparents, the film manages to remain unassuming and neutral in its pursuit of justice. Like The Thin Blue Line, the success of this picture is creating an entertaining narrative for a story that’s an otherwise bleak call to action.


5. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron Smartest Guys in the Room

When we think of true crime stories, we usually think of murder, blood, backwater or big city slums. The stuff the 10 O’clock News feeds us ad infinitum and, to be fair, the stuff that many impactful nonfiction investigations are built upon. What Alex Gibney provides with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room does involve shadows, death, and crime, only that all of it happens somewhere between boardrooms and short drives to McMansions.

A needle point example of the rapacious evil that tore into the American economy from Regan to today, Enron’s criminals wear suits and commit the white collar kind of lawlessness. Perhaps more than any evil that exists on this list, the viewer leaves Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room feeling as if neither justice has been served nor that the criminals have even an ounce of remorse, if at least some understandable underlying motivation.

The sub-title is “The Smartest Guys in the Room” because it is precisely this veil of knowledge that allowed Kenneth Lay and cronies to take advantage of people who trusted them with their money.

As seen in Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, greed in a system based on illusion stems from the greedy possessing facts that others are too busy living difficult lives to truly comprehend. America built a society that forced hopeful citizens with modest incomes to trust others with their financial security, while the paradox remained that the people being trusted’s own fortunes were dependent on the unknowing’s money to grow filthy rich.

The facts never do become clear, and they shouldn’t, which is exactly how so many were gotten over on. Shot with a sleek and sexy camera accompanied by increasingly driving musical cues, Enron persists as a mystery diving deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of deception. Like reading a Ross MacDonald novel, it’s easy to get lost in attempting to figure out the mystery while forgetting the disgusting human nature that’s viscerally sucking you in.


4. Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

Murder on a Sunday Morning

Murder on a Sunday Morning takes on many of the same themes as The Thin Blue Line, The Central Park Five and Paradise Lost, however, the social ramifications of this particular picture grows as the divide of American gun culture continues to expand.

Made by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Murder on a Sunday Morning tells the story of Brenton Butler, a Jacksonville teenage accused of murdering a tourist. Much of the case against Butler is built upon the victim’s husband’s positive identification and a confession that, like the Central Park case, is said in the film to have been coerced.

The power of Murder on a Sunday Morning is its restrained, observational efforts to watch as the defense builds its stance for Butler’s innocence.

Unlike many films that arrive on the scene after the trial has ended, with new evidence to present as a measure of exoneration or to reopen the case, Murder on a Sunday Morning is on the ground floor. As a result, the film puts its themes of racism, wrongful guilt until proven innocence and need to jump to conclusions – any conclusion – for closure, to the forefront.

In 2014, The Case Against 8 followed the lawyers putting together their case against Prop 8 in California. Like that film, there’s an inherent immediacy in collecting the details of an event that will inevitably pit the viewer on the side of the lawyers in an effort to get a potential problem off the hook.

In Murder on a Sunday Morning, the audience is not on the side of civil rights but a potential criminal. Lestrade’s film, unlike other films that dive into the legal system, highlights that the American courts are built upon confirmation bias rather than the pursuit of justice.

Murder on a Sunday Morning is of greater interest in the decade since its central case because it took place in the same state as the highly publicized Trayvon Martin murder; only in this situation the racial line is reversed. What’s compelling is how hard the defense must work to acquit an innocent boy in comparison to how difficult – and eventually impossible – it was for prosecutors to convict Martin’s killer.

In a system where judges are bought and sold, those without the means to pay to defend themselves must work hard for impartiality. Murder on a Sunday Morning ends on a bittersweet note as an acquittal triumphantly comes Brenton Butler’s way, but the question remains of why he was in that courtroom in the first place.


3. The Staircase (2004)

The Staircase

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade followed his Academy Award-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, with this 8-part miniseries that deals in similar, equally compelling and frustrating terrain. Whereas Murder on a Sunday Morning put the microscope on systemic repression of black men in America, as well as a court system that makes difficult the process of acquittal for those without the means of defense, The Staircase takes on the inverse.

Successful novelist Michael Peterson is on trial for murdering his wife and then staging the death as an accidental fall down a staircase. Lestrade follows the defense attorneys as they mount their case for Peterson’s innocence.

The series plays like the best episode of The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst), where Andrew Jarecki slowly peels apart the seemingly obvious case against Robert Durst, by highlighting the accused’s charisma and need to defend himself in the heat of battle. Here Peterson, who is similar to Durst in more ways than one, is backed by two daughters who believe staunchly that he’s not guilty.

The courtroom location is treated like a battleground as the film covers intense cross-examinations and delivers twists and revelations in every new installment. Like The Jinx and Serial, which became national obsessions in 2015, The Staircase begins with a story that is almost cut and dry, with the viewer forming a judgment, only to watch their side flip from one belief to another and back again.

The most powerful tool of true crime cinema is its ability to force the audience to question its own need to jump to a conclusion, presume authority and smarts over a case that has more breadcrumbs than any can at first imagine.

Ultimately, The Staircase ends in the opposite way that Murder on a Sunday Morning does, with the central subject convicted of the crime. But Lestrade isn’t so much interested in what America calls justice as the crooked cat and mouse process by which it arrives at its decisions.


2. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Capturing the Friedmans

Before Andrew Jarecki became a household name with The Jinx, he was for a moment a controversial figure for making an equally stirring portrait of upper class American family crime with Capturing the Friedmans. The son of a wealthy financier and philanthropist, Jarecki has made a career out of tackling the dark underbelly of waspy, wealthy American life.

Friedmans originally began as a modest documentary about a children’s party clown, however, when the subject opened up about his father and brother’s conviction for child molestation, Jarecki spiraled down the rabbit hole in search of the truth. Filled with interviews, often shrouded in shadow to protect identities, with the now grown victims, Jarecki asks uncomfortable questions that barely tight walk the edge of accusation.

The story concerns Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse, who were found guilty after kids who had been taught in computer classes came forward and alleged forcible sex. The response to the film was fiery as some cried victim-blaming, since Jarecki’s narrative remains skeptical of the stories the victims parlay.

Jarecki’s most notable contribution with Capturing the Friedmans is how he indicts not the man who was already imprisoned or the family who has to pick up the pieces, but a system built on guilt before proven innocence. Shame has befallen the accused while the innocent family must face the disgrace of questionable truths.

We live in a society that applauds second chances except when those chances don’t fit into an established status quo. Jarecki is on record as saying he believes that Arnold and Jesse may not be guilty, which would essentially be an admission that he thinks his subjects lied right to his face. Capturing the Friedmans is a success in relaying moral ambiguity and muddied motivations that lie dormant in the prevailing secrecy of storybook America.


1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line movie

You know that old cliché about clichés: It’s a cliché because it’s true? Often imitated but never duplicated, it is true that virtually every modern true crime documentary owes a debt to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. In fact, contemporary documentaries of all kinds have employed many of Morris’ stylings and tropes, now so common that they have infiltrated everything from HBO specials to an entire network called Investigation Discovery.

Every filmmaker with a predilection towards investigative journalism hopes to stumble upon a case like the one Morris found in the wrongful conviction of a Texas man on death row, so they can use the gifts of cinema to crack the case wide open.

Occasionally the films are a success, as was recently seen in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx, though often they become further examples in a canon of documents just like it, as has been seen in many activism documentaries of the early 2000s.

Beyond its influence, The Thin Blue Line stands as an absorbing piece of entertainment. And that is perhaps the biggest key to its long reach as well as its ability to get the decision overturned.

While Morris had just come off two observational, modest documentaries with Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, he all but reinvented himself with The Thin Blue Line. Smartly, the filmmaker chose to package an exhaustive amount of investigation about the case of a cop murder into tight narrative.

The resulting use of kinetic Philip Glass compositions and shadowy reenactments got more eyes onto his film than virtually any documentary that came before it. Now two decades old, The Thin Blue Line remains watchable for its core mystery and handling of characters. It’s the very best of true crime potboilers, even if one goes in knowing how it will all turn out.

Author Bio: Zac Petrillo is a graduate of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. A New York City native, he currently writes and produces fiction and nonfiction film and television out of Los Angeles. Follow Zac on Twitter @zpetrillo.