True Crime is a major genre in cinema, most likely because the heroes and villains are readily apparent. However, without a sure hand guiding the screenplay, these films can easily fall flat. The writer has to take a laundry list of facts and chronological events and from them shape a compelling dramatic conflict while (hopefully) staying true to the essence of the real story.
Usually, writers tend to stick too close to the facts thereby draining all life and spontaneity from the drama, or drift too far from the facts and turn a potentially original film into a cookie-cutter Hollywood film. These are 20 great films that manage to ride the fine line in between.
20. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
The Film: Steven Spielberg is not a filmmaker known for crime films, however he excels with the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo Dicaprio), teenage runaway turned con man and check counterfeiter.
Why it’s great: The light-hearted cat and mouse between Abagnale and the FBI man on his trail, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is right in Spielberg’s wheelhouse. He creates a fun popcorn movie around the tender story of a lost boy looking for a father.
19. Stander (2003)
The Film: The fascinating true story of Andre Stander (Thomas Jane), South African police officer turned bank robber.
Why It’s Great: Jane shines as the anti-hero Stander, who, fed up with injustice he sees around him, uses his knowledge as a police officer to outsmart the cops and rob banks with elaborate disguises. The further Stander pushes the limits of what he can get away with the closer he comes to his own self-destruction.
18. Donnie Brasco (1997)
The Film: Featuring another understated performance by Johnny Depp, Donnie Brasco tells the story of Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent who goes undercover infiltrating the mafia, adopting the name Donnie Brasco.
Why It’s Great: The longer Brasco is undercover the more he assimilates into the mafia lifestyle to the point that he begins to relate more to the gangsters he’s trying to put away than the cops he’s working with. It’s a deep examination of the true meaning of loyalty.
17. The French Connection (1971)
The Film: The incredible true story of New York cops Jimmy Doyle and Buddy Russo, who stumble onto drug smugglers with a ‘French Connection’, was the first big break for William Friedkin and Gene Hackman. Both would take home Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively.
Why It’s Great: The epic car chase and the bleak ending. But enough has been said about this film already, so I’ll just say it paved the way for realistic New York cop dramas, especially the films of Sidney Lumet.
16. The Untouchables (1987)
The Film: The Untouchables tells the classic tale of Eliot Ness and his ‘Untouchables’ bringing down Al Capone with a fresh take on it from Director Brian De Palma and writer David Mamet.
Why It’s Great: While it may be less faithful to the true events inspiring the film it makes up for it with action and suspense, particularly with the Union Station sequence and Sean Connery’s character.
15. Capote (2005)
The Film: Based on the events surrounding the writing of Truman Capote’s seminal work of true crime nonfiction In Cold Blood, Capote gives a glimpse of the man behind the words.
Why It’s Great: Three words: Philip Seymour Hoffman. He transformed himself for the role losing 40 pounds and adopting the effeminate mannerisms and speech of Truman Capote. His brilliant work paid off when he took home the Oscar for Best Actor.
14. The Insider (1999)
The Film: Michael Mann, a director known for his highly detailed crime dramas, hits a home run with The Insider, the story of Jeffrey Wigand, a research chemist who blows the whistle on Big Tobacco, risking his life in the process.
Why It’s Great: Russell Crowe disappears in the role of Wigand packing on the pounds and donning white hair. And Michael Mann’s ability to take an intellectual morality play and turn it into an intense thriller.
13. Dead Man Walking (1995)
The Film: Based on another nonfiction book, this one by Sister Helen Prejean, about a nun’s relationship with a prisoner on death row and her attempts to obtain a pardon for his execution in exchange for life imprisonment.
Why It’s Great: Sean Penn’s raw performance as Matthew Poncelet, the death row prisoner, is reason enough.
12. The Snowtown Murders (2011)
The Film: The true story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer John Bunting, who enlists his friends and Jamie, the sixteen-year old son of his new girlfriend, to kill accused child molesters. The story is told from the point of view of Jamie, an impressionable and troubled kid. Bunting is the only positive influence in his life making it all the more frightening when his true nature is revealed.
Why It’s Great: The movie is so brutal and creepy that it plays out more like a horror movie than a crime film and the fact that it’s a true story makes it all the more scary.
11. Chopper (2000)
The Film: Chopper is based on the book “From the Inside” by the man himself, Mark “Chopper” Read, telling the story of his criminal life and violent exploits in and out of prison.
Why It’s Great: It’s the debut film from Andrew Dominick, who has another film on this list, and it features a breakout performance by Eric Bana as the insane, paranoid and fame hungry Chopper.