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Interest in true crime is at an all-time high. Here’s what you need to see to catch up.
Interest in the true-crime genre is at an all-time high. From podcasts like Serial to the HBO breakthrough The Jinx, everyone is riding the genre’s recent wave of popularity. Netflix has played a big part in that wave, with captivating documentaries, movies, and shows that capture the mystery and emotion of real-life tragedies. Here’s the best true crime on Netflix right now, some of which you’ve probably heard of, others which you probably haven’t—and all of which is guaranteed to creep you out.
The best true crime movies on Netflix
Based on a true story involving a serial killer, a corrupt police force, and a mother’s search for her missing child, this Clint Eastwood movie earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Actress. That last nod went to Angelina Jolie, who gives a fierce and emotional performance as Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in 1928 only to have the LAPD deliver another child to her and insist he was her own. When researching the improbable events of the case, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist, didn’t even believe they were real at first. —Chris Osterndorf
2) Devil’s Knot
From director Atom Egoyan, Devil’s Knot tells the story of the child murders at Robin Hood Hills and the subsequent conviction of a group of teenagers who became known as the “West Memphis Three.” It’s the same story documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky told in their Paradise Lost trilogy on HBO. Though the film is neither as comprehensive nor as objective as the docs are (they cover the arrest of the West Memphis Three through their incarceration and the fight to exonerate them,) it does feature strong performances from a cast led by Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. —C.O.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one of the world’s most controversial atheists, and this new film from Tommy O’Haver and Irene Turner looks at her mysterious disappearance and death as well. Melissa Leo plays O’Hair as a bulldog who fought for religious freedom, but her life had some dark pockets too. —Audra Schroeder
4) The Polka King
The Polka King, by writing-directing team Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, is a disjointed dark comedy about an odd true crime. Jan Lewandowski (Jack Black), who goes by the “rhyming Jan Lewan,” was indicted in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. He bilked his victims out of $4 million. Jan spun the ill-gotten cash into a music empire. Jenny Slate as Jan’s wife Marla and Jacki Weaver as Marla’s mother are both silver linings. —Eddie Strait
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The best true-crime documentaries on Netflix
1) Amanda Knox
If you knew nothing about Amanda Knox going into this documentary, in which she herself appears, you might be surprised by how cut and dry her case seems (spoiler alert: it’s pretty clear she didn’t do it.) Yet the film is also a reminder of the sensationalism that sprung up around her, and how easy it is to twist a narrative to satiate the public’s appetite for blood. As with any good true crime story, there are elements of Knox’s case which are strange. She didn’t always act like a “typical” girl, she didn’t behave as she “should’ve” in certain situations. But under similar circumstances, who’s to say how any of us would react? Perhaps there are details of that night in 2007, when Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher was murdered, that we’ll never fully understand. Certainly, a lot of people involved jumped to the wrong conclusions initially. But the film argues that the media’s portrait of “Foxy Knoxy” was as much a part of the case’s mishandling as anything else. —C.O.
This documentary looks at the infamous and unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey and takes an unusual approach. Director Kitty Green interviews young actresses who are vying for the part of JonBenét. Filtering a case everyone has heard through this meta lens adds a layer of surreality to the story, which is plenty bizarre to begin with. The result is an unsettling doc that examines the impact JonBenét’s murder has had on the local community. —E.S.
Tabloid centers on Joyce McKinney, a beauty queen who received international attention for abducting her Mormon beau, Kirk Anderson. The documentary is as sad and funny as it is puzzling. While the details of the case are murky, director Errol Morris gets the most out of his interviewee, eliciting extreme candor form McKinney, who wasn’t too happy with the final product though. McKinney’s ongoing saga with the media continued last year when she took Morris to court over the way she was portrayed in the film. –C.O.
4) I Called Him Morgan
Helen Morgan killed her common-law husband, virtuoso jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, in cold blood on a February night in 1972. It was a heinous act that took a talented man from the world when he still had a lot left to offer. But while Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan gives the proper weight to this tragedy, the documentary is elevated by not demonizing Helen for her actions. In using recordings from an interview she gave before her death, Collin pieces together the life of an extraordinary if troubled woman, even arriving at some understanding of why she did what she did. The film is an elegant, empathetic portrait of two remarkable subjects. —C.O.
5) Brother’s Keeper
Brother’s Keeper tells the strange tale of the Ward brothers, four semi-literate farmers who lived together in a shack in Munnsville, New York. After one of them is murdered, a media frenzy breaks out around the siblings and their unconventional lifestyle. Questions about whether this was a case of coerced confession, a mercy killing, or something more sinister abound—not to mention whether the Wards are being exploited or playing dumb for the camera. From Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the Paradise Lost trilogy), Brother’s Keeper is one of the essential titles in modern documentary filmmaking. —C.O.
Tower is sure to become the defining film on the Aug. 1, 1966, sniper shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. As a haunting reminder of the past and a frightening predictor of the present, few events from the last century are as significant or as horrifying as what happened that day. Using interviews and animation to recreate their actions, survivors of the incident talk about their trauma and their bravery while director Keith Maitland uses rotoscoping to paint a picture of what they went through. This makes the film’s ending, when we see these people as in real life as they exist today—some of them actually meeting in person—all the more powerful. —C.O.
7) Long Shot
The doc focuses on Juan Catalan, who was arrested in August 2003 for the May 2003 murder of 16-year-old Martha Puebla. We see the soft-spoken Catalan present day and in court in 2003. We hear audio of his interrogation by two LAPD officers. Catalan maintains his innocence, but things appear grim. He’s been identified in a lineup by a witness, and detectives seem satisfied. Until this point Long Shot is a fairly routine true-crime doc, but it finds it groove when Catalan picks up high-profile lawyer Todd Melnik, and they try to back up his alibi: He was at a Dodgers game with his daughter the night of the murder. And so Long Shot goes to the tape and starts breaking down the extraordinary circumstances of the game: HBO was shooting an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm on that same night, and LaMendola heightens the tension by drawing out the big reveal. —A.S.
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This documentary shines a light on journalist Gay Talese and the scandal surrounding The Voyeur’s Motel. His 2016 book told the story of Gerald Foos, a serial voyeur who modified his Colorado motel so that he could spy on the guests from an attic crawl space that allowed him to peep in through the ceiling vents. Talese’s interactions with Foos raised a whole host of ethical questions, especially when Foos claimed to have witnessed a murder… and that was before a Washington Post story revealed that Foos might not have been telling the truth. —David Wharton
The best true-crime docuseries on Netflix
Making a Murderer was, in many ways, the final push needed for pop culture’s recent true-crime boom. Making a Murderer examines the case against Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit only to be accused of murder again upon his release. The docuseries brought out amateur sleuths in full force online, even as various critiques of the show pointed to evidence that creators Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi seemed to have left out. Regardless of what you think about Avery and the possibility of his innocence, the show got people talking, and it’s impossible to deny its impact. Making a Murderer also proved to have a lasting effect on Netflix itself, going on to influence original programming from The Keepers to American Vandal. —C.O.
2) The Keepers
The murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik has been unsolved for nearly 50 years. This Netflix docuseries follows a pair of Sister Cathy’s former students who set out to find their teacher’s killer. The more we learn about Sister Cathy, the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and the Catholic Church, the more clear it becomes that Sister Cathy’s death was not an isolated incident, but something much larger and sinister. The Keepers is more than a cold-case mystery. Rather, it’s a tale of corruption and conspiracy, but more than anything, it’s a tragedy. —E.S.
Innocent until proven guilty. That’s how it’s supposed to work in America. But all too often, that’s not how it does. True-crime documentary series The Confession Tapes examines cases where the prosecution gained a conviction based primarily on taped confessions that the suspects claim were coerced. Naysayers might ask, “Why in the world would anyone confess to something they didn’t do?” The Confession Tapes does a compelling job of answering that question, showing suspects being pressured, manipulated, intimidated, and lied to. It might not surprise you, but it’s one thing to suspect that justice isn’t always blind. It’s another thing to watch it play out. —D.W.
Errol Morris’ latest opus is an extraordinary CIA murder mystery, involving an unusual death and the consequential government secrets being swept away by the circumstances surrounding it. In the middle of it all, a son pursues closure about his father’s mysterious demise. —Kahron Spearman
5) Dirty Money
This chase-cutting investigative documentary series takes you on a set of extraordinary rides filled with Volkswagen scandals, Mexican drug cartels, Québécois maple syrup cartels, and complicit governments—including, possibly, our own. Produced by genre master Alex Gibney (Going Clear), the six-part series investigates some of the world’s most greedy and power-hungry instigators. Armed with a dangerous, even rockstar appeal, Dirty Money entertains as well as it informs—but you may need a shower afterward. —K.S.
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6) Drug Lords
Each episode of Drug Lords explores the life of a different narcotics boss, as well as their organizations and the law enforcement officials who eventually brought them down. All of these stories have been fictionalized at least once, so the best part of the series ends up being the comparisons it invites to the Hollywood retellings. Many players from these events are interviewed, with results that range from extremely candid and revealing to by-the-book recounts of historical events. —C.O.
Through a bounty of interviews with cops, criminals, and addicts, Dope makes one thing clear: The war on drugs is, and always has been, horrible. The show’s casually depressing portrayal of America’s narcotics policies makes it a frustrating watch, shocking and completely unsurprising at once. But despite its other faults, it’s worth watching. —C.O.
The docuseries from the production team behind Parts Unknown is a true-crime saga about food. The six-episode installments avoid focusing exclusively on the horrors of food production like other docs that scream “Do you know where your food comes from?” The common thread is the invisible hand that moves the food trade, the shadowy corporations and government regulations that obscure origins, and the human labor that brings you your food. —A.S.
This six-part Netflix documentary series will both astound and frustrate you. Filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way dug through 300 hours of footage and interviews to present the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru who moved his following to a ranch in Wasco County, Oregon, in 1981 in an attempt to build a utopia of religious freedom and higher thinking. As his followers, dressed in red, descended on the ranch, the neighboring working-class town of Antelope, Oregon, population roughly 40, took notice. And it only gets weirder from there. —A.S.
10) I Am a Killer
Focusing on 10 death row inmates over 10 episodes, I am a Killer examines different aspects of each one of these men’s cases, from their personal histories to how they fit into the larger criminal justice system. The one thing they all have in common is that they’ve been convicted of capital murder and been sentenced to execution. The frankness with which some of the men discuss their crimes is unsettling, while in other episodes, a sense of mystery remains around the acts in focus. Overall, the show is captivating enough, though it rarely dives below surface level. —C.O.
11) The Staircase
You probably won’t come away from The Staircase with any easy answers about Michael Peterson’s guilt or innocence. Even though he was convicted in 2003, by the end of the newly updated 13-episode series it’s still not clear if Peterson murdered his wife Kathleen in December 2001 by pushing her down a staircase at their Durham, North Carolina, home, or if she accidentally fell. But you will spend a lot of time staring at Michael Peterson’s face. Originally released in 2004, The Staircase, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, has gone through a couple updates, with the most recent being three new episodes featuring Peterson during and after his 2017 plea deal. Netflix picked up the series with those new episodes; two more episodes were added in 2013, after a retrial. —A.S.
The best true crime shows on Netflix
1) American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson
One of the best show of 2016 and one of the all-time great seasons of anthology television, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson was nothing short of a revelation. The show reframes the racial and gender politics of the Simpson trial through a modern lens without losing any of the tabloid sensationalism that made the trial such a spectacle in the first place. In doing so, executive producer Ryan Murphy finally made something that embraced all his best sensibilities and negated all his worst ones. Much of the credit for that goes to writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had been wanting to turn the story into a miniseries for years. Then there’s the cast, including usual Murphy ensemble players like Sarah Paulson, who does the best work of her career as Marcia Clark, and revelatory performances from Nathan Lane, Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance, and David Schwimmer. Sterling K. Brown basically rocketed to fame thanks to his nuanced portrayal of Chris Darden. Even John Travolta’s weird toupee and accent don’t bring down this masterful show. —C.O.
Netflix’s David Fincher-produced Mindhunter takes viewers into the depraved minds of history’s most notorious killers. Set in 1977, the series follows FBI agent Ford Holden through his groundbreaking research. The true crime series tackles a difficult question: Are criminals born, or are they formed? And the answers aren’t easy. But the real-life serial killers featured in the show make for helpful, transfixing interview subjects. With strong dialogue and cinematography, the clinical series has earned its season 2 renewal. —Danielle Ransom
3) Alias Grace
Sarah Gandon shines as Grace Marks, a demure domestic servant who became infamous in Canada following her conviction for a brutal 1843 double murder. The question of whether she did it, and why, and of what forces brought her to that point, shapes Netflix’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s twisting narrative… and leaves behind far more questions than it answers. Gandon’s Grace is both victim and mastermind, a hypnotic vision of a woman trying to navigate a society that’s been stacked against her from the moment of her birth. —D.W.
Narcos: Mexico shifts the focus north, from Colombia to Mexico, exploring the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel during the 1980s. Diego Luna stars an enterprising trafficker who rises to head the Cartel thanks to his shrewd intelligence and a willingness to take huge risks in attempting to form an alliance between a circus of violent, competing criminal fiefdoms. Opposing him is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), an ambitious DEA agent with no patience for “established protocols” that only serve to secure the status quo. Their strong performances anchor a twisting, addictive narrative that proves that Narcos is in no danger of running out of steam—or compelling subject matter—anytime soon. —D.W.
5) American Vandal
Netflix has been growing its true-crime library with Making a Murderer, The Keepers, Amanda Knox, Audrie & Daisy, Casting JonBenet, Strong Island, and Long Shot. But with American Vandal it appears to be hedging its bets and going right for parody. American Vandal is, at its core, an eight-episode dick joke. Twenty-seven faculty cars were defaced with dicks in the parking lot of Hanover High School, and Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is the main suspect.
“Everyone thinks I did it,” he says in the first episode.
“Did what?” the interviewer asks.
And so begins the exhaustive, hilarious search for answers, in the style of Making a Murderer or Serial. —A.S.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.