True crime documentaries are all the rage these days, despite the redundant genre phrasing. Crime documentaries are, almost by definition, already true crime documentaries. But the term “true crime” tends to mean a focus on murder investigations, excluding other crime stories. That’s fair since “crime” by itself can apply to a wide variety of subjects, from trespassing to war atrocities.
For the following list, though, we’ll keep qualification to a closer range. To us, crime documentaries are related to “crime films,” meaning movies dealing with felonious activities. Including, but not limited to, murder. Not serial murder, however, because we already have a list spotlighting the most fascinating serial killer documentaries. Also, we have limited this list to features, at least for now, given that they’re less common than series these days.
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Before they got involved with the case of the boys then known as the West Memphis Three (documented in the Paradise Lost trilogy), Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made this film about the Ward Boys, a fraternal foursome living in rural upstate New York who became just three when one of them was murdered. Was it one of the other brothers who killed him? Why? And how did these guys live the way they were living for so long?
Bus 174 (2002)
Part of an explosion of Brazilian crime films at the time (City of God being the most well-known), Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda‘s Bus 174 represented the nonfiction wave with its telling of a hostage crisis that unfolded on television one afternoon in 2000. The documentary is so captivating thanks to all the footage available recorded by the media, through and including the tragic ending, which may have been caused by all the attention.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (2014)
This true-crime doc was part of the trend in revisiting big news stories of the 1990s. Pamela Smart was convicted of plotting her husband’s murder, which was committed by her teenage lover, and inspired multiple screen depictions of the case including the fictionalized movie To Die For. In Captivated, she sits down for a central interview, in which she maintains her innocence while blaming the media — including the broadcast of the trial, which was a first at the time — for clouding the truth with its coverage and its presence.
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami broke out internationally with this docudrama that’s essentially a feature-length reenactment of an unusual crime. Hossain Sabzian convinced a family that he was movie director Mohsen Makhmalbaf but meant no ill-will toward them. Close-Up casts Sabzian, Makhmalbaf, and the Ahankhahs all as themselves — Kiarostami appears, as well — in its meta effort to depict the story, including the eventual trial.
Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
Compared to the rest of the films on this list and even to director Billy Corben‘s later work, Cocaine Cowboys is a rather unpolished documentary, even in its revised form released eight years later. But that’s part of what makes the cult classic stand out, with its fast-paced tabloid style and rough but exhausting expositional history of the rise of the cocaine trade in Miami. The production value isn’t all second-rate, either: the doc features an awesomely perfect score from Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer. When you see Cocaine Cowboys for the first time, or if you’ve only seen the 2004 release, check out the 2014 re-issue, titled Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded.
F for Fake (1973)
Orson Welles‘ hybrid documentary classic is about many more things than the crime of art forgery, but that’s the foundation of the film, which addresses the issue of authenticity, ultimately questioning its own truth, as well as the sham of the art world in general. Elmyr de Hory is the infamous forger of paintings given the spotlight, while notorious writer and hoaxter Clifford Irving is also put on display. But the film implies we all fake it to make it to some degree, though not all on a criminal level.
The Imposter (2012)
In 1994, a little boy went missing in San Antonio. Three years later, he was discovered living in Spain and was brought back to America and reunited with his family. Only he didn’t really look or sound like the boy. Because he wasn’t the boy. He was a conman pretending to be the missing child. How did the family not realize? Were they just going along with the ruse since they knew the true fate of the kid? Not all our questions are answered by this riveting documentary, which is anchored by an interview with the fascinating fraudster, Frédéric Bourdin. But few films are so good at leaving us filled with suspicion as The Imposter.
A Man Vanishes (1967)
A lesser-known forebear to both F for Fake and Close-Up, among other meta true-crime documentaries, Shohei Imamura‘s A Man Vanishes may not technically involve an actual crime. Or actual truth for that matter. Just like a number of fictional crime films in which supposedly murdered or missing persons turn out to be people framing others for crimes, the titular vanished man may just be hiding or otherwise purposefully disappeared. Perhaps he never even existed at all. Either way, the investigative documentary is still, even if loosely, a work of nonfiction.
Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)
More people have likely seen Jean-Xavier de Lestrade‘s true crime series The Staircase, especially now that it’s been continued by Netflix, but his Oscar-winning feature Murder on a Sunday Morning is arguably the better documentary. The film follows the case of wrongfully accused African-American teenager Brenton Butler, who was coerced into confessing to and then charged with murder in Jacksonville in 2000. Like many other documentaries, unfortunately, this one is about the crimes of the police and justice system, but no other filmmaker makes these already compelling stories so engrossing as Lestrade does.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
If this list was ranked, The Thin Blue Line would place first, without any doubt. It’s actually one of the best documentaries of any kind ever made. Errol Morris‘ true-crime masterpiece is a Rashomon-like examination of a murder of a police officer and the man wrongfully convicted of the crime. The best example of anything worth labeling “documentary noir” or a nonfiction detective film, this film also has the honor of having helped free its subject and subsequently influenced so many of the true-crime documentaries that have followed.