The 15 Best Crime Documentaries on Netflix Will Make You Lock Your Doors
Serial killers, sadistic cartels, and sinister cults abound in our list of the absolute-best crime documentaries on Netflix (US) right now.
From left, Wild Wild Country photo: Netflix; screengrab from Survivors Guide to Prison
It’s no small secret: we’re obsessed with true crime. There’s probably a reason stories of assassination, murder, and torture keep us coming back for more. But just gets weird when you start to question why. Don’t—and instead get your fix of capers, cops, and criminals with this definitive list of the best crime documentaries on Netflix (US) right now:
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
The problem with Aileen Wuornos’s characterization as a “serial killer” is that it lumps her, a woman who shot her johns in what she claimed was self-defense, in the same category as sadists like John Wayne Gacy and Dean Corli. No, Wuornos’s story is unique and through Nick Bloomfield’s filmmaking (2002’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is the follow-up to his 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, also on Netflix), a sadder portrait emerges, one that makes you feel pity on the abused former prostitute.
In 2015, Matthew Heineman’s Mexican Drug War documentary was the toast of Sundance. For good reason: his visually-enrapturing film puts a dynamic spin on drug war coverage by presenting “a parallel story of vigilantes on both sides of the border.” His film presents characters caught in the grip of an inescapable quagmire, one at the confluence of public health, world trade, and international relations.
The Confession Tapes
The sad, strange phenomenon that is the false confession gets its due in Kelly Loudenberg’s stunning antidote to true crime sensationalism. Six stories spanning seven episodes run the gamut from kafkaesque interrogations to trials by media in this endlessly fascinating, endlessly frustrating, and formally staggering Netflix original series.
The insane story of that time a pizza delivery guy got a bomb strapped to his neck and was forced to rob a bank comes to bleary-eyed life again in this true crime original series from Netflix and filmmakers Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri. The conclusion of Evil Genius will, without a doubt, leave you scratching your head, so first, read our interview with Borzilleri here.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
A deadly love triangle emerges in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden that feels at once biblical and perfectly perverse enough for the screen. As the story goes, European settlers find their Eden on a remote island in the Galapagos, and then proceed to sully it with affairs, scandals, and ultimately murder. Told through the readings of original letters (through the voices of Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, and more, no less), what emerges is an engrossing spectacle of human failures, a fall of the highest order.
Prior to making Holy Hell, documentarian Will Allen spent 22 years with the Buddhafield group, which eventually became the subject of his 2016 film. Austere and hypnotic, the story of the cult’s descent into spiritual disrepair is a must-watch story for anyone interested in the dubious phenomenon that is New Age spirituality.
Into the Abyss
Austrian filmmaker Werner Herzog trained his sights on Texas for this riveting true crime story that takes place in the days leading up to one man’s execution for homicide. Reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, this haunting film will force you to question both the nature of the judicial system and of capital punishment itself.
Proponents of conspiracy theories will open up Pandora’s proverbial box with this dark documentary series centered around the unsolved murder of a nun. Spanning the 1969 disappearance and its resulting implications in the 1990s, it’s a fascinatingly dark exploration into just how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
Los Angeles was burning in the wake of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD, and this formally masterful National Geographic Channel documentary has the archival footage to put you at the heart of it. The 2017 winner of the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking Emmy, LA 92 is the perfect documentary to watch if you’re looking for a crash-course in American race relations.
Making a Murderer
In the wake of the mega-successes of Serial and The Jinx, Netflix had a hit on its hands with this stunning and still-ongoing entreaty into the true crime canon. At its heart is Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison following a wrongful conviction, only to get exonerated, and then land back in jail for another murder. Is it the result of fundamental flaws in the justice system, or the world’s most extreme case of wrong-place, wrong-time? You decide.
American Experience: Ruby Ridge
Anyone with a passing interest in the ongoing struggle between big government and individual liberty can learn a lot from the deeply fucked-up story of the siege of Ruby Ridge, in which one small family’s move to a quiet mountain peak ended in a shootout, a standoff, and the deaths of four (including the family dog). The story even connects to the later Waco siege and Oklahoma City bombing, meaning this information-packed PBS documentary is the perfect starting point for a deep-dive into contemporary American trauma.
French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 13-episode docuseries tells the story of Michael and Kathleen Peterson and the latter’s death following what looked (or was made to look like) a fatal fall down a staircase. Originally appearing in 2004, with a sequel series appearing in 2013, the entire saga now comes to Netflix (and has been garnering rave reviews).
Survivors Guide to Prison
What’s it like to go to prison? Activists, celebrities, and former incarcerees weigh in in Matthew Cooke’s new documentary film about the American penal system. At its heart are the stories of wrongfully-convicted former inmates Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker; at its soul is a genuine desire to initiate real prison reform ASAP.
The work of documentary master Errol Morris doesn’t get more iconic than in 2010’s Tabloid, which tells the story of the bizarre “Mormon sex in chains case” and the media frenzy that surrounded it. As the story itself goes, a Mormon missionary is kidnapped and forced into sex slavery for a former Miss Wyoming. But as Morris presents it, what resulted from the 1977 case could be the perfect indictment of sensationalism and obsession.
Wild Wild Country
This smash-hit documentary series tells the story of OSHO, a New Age religious cult that would go from utopian idealism to assassination attempts and bio-terror plots in a matter of years. It’s pretty fucking insane, and the way filmmaker-brothers Maclain and Chapman Way weave archival and new footage to tell the stranger-than-fiction story has all the trappings of an iconic true crime instant-classic.
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