Sometimes – especially in 2020 – reality can get to be just a bit too much. And sometimes the only antidote to too much reality is an escape into more reality, just someone else’s. That’s where documentaries come in. And for true crime fanatics, there’s nothing better than diving into a new cold case or exploring a new take on a murder long thought solved – or unsolvable.
2020 has been a weird year for movies of all kinds, though, and documentaries are no different, so while there are plenty of great true crime documentaries and docuseries that came out this year, they don’t always take quite the form – or cover quite the subjects – that you might expect. Still, these 13 true crime docs are perfect for lockdown binge watching, and are sure to shake you and make you question what you think you know … and just maybe give you some new insight into this weird year.
13. White Noise
The first documentary produced by The Atlantic, director Daniel Lombroso’s White Noise doesn’t cover the usual kind of crime, in that most everything it talks about is technically on the “legal” side of the line, if at times only barely. But it’s a timely and topical dive into the far right world of white supremacy in the wake of the 2016 presidential election that helps to contextualize some of the crimes that have been perpetrated in the name of the movement in the years since.
12. The Scheme
“The fact that the U.S. government wasted so much time and resources poorly trying to push into one corner of this behemoth of corruption and greed is the real story here,” Brian Tallerico writes at RogerEbert.com. “And it’s well-told.” The scheme of the title involves an attempted FBI sting operation directed against the NCAA, centering on Christian Dawkins, who anchors this one-sided HBO documentary.
11. The Vow
One of the biggest stories of the past few years was the disintegration of NXIVM, a so-called “self-improvement” group and multi-level marketing company that was actually a cult, and a front for sex trafficking. This HBO docuseries – which was recently renewed for a second season – takes an ambitious swing at tackling the complexities of the story and giving the victims a voice, even while the second season is preparing to go over the recent trial that followed.
10. Trial by Media
One of the many true crime docuseries that came out in 2020 exploring familiar crime stories from interesting new angles, this Netflix original series – which counts George Clooney among its roster of executive producers – tackles the media depictions of major trials of the recent past, including episodes focusing on the corruption trial of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the money-laundering schemes of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, and the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo by police.
Many of us remember the Monopoly contest that McDonalds ran for years – but we may not have been aware that there was a massive scam operating to ensure that the game’s top prizes always went to one man, who sold them off to friends, family, and, eventually, a network of mobsters. There’s supposed to be a Matt Damon-starring movie dramatizing the events on the way, but in the meantime, this 6-episode HBO docuseries showcases every angle of this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story.
8. Tiger King
It’s impossible to discuss true crime documentaries in 2020 without touching on Tiger King, quite possibly the most talked-about television event of the year. Benefitting from the timing of its release right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown – coupled with its genuinely bizarre subject matter – it seemed like just about everyone binged Tiger King when the docuseries first hit Netflix. Taking viewers into the world of private zoo owners, the wild (no pun intended) story follows a feud between the charismatic but unhinged “Joe Exotic” and the owner of a big cat sanctuary … a feud that ultimately ends in a murder-for-hire plot.
Related: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness Is the Wild True Crime Binge-Watch for Your Weekend Ahead
7. The Mole Agent
“Warm and funny” aren’t words that are often used in the reviews of true crime documentaries, yet that’s exactly how the critics consensus for The Mole Agent at Rotten Tomatoes starts off. This Chilean documentary – which was entered into competition as that country’s entry for the Best International Feature Film award at the Oscars – follows a private detective who hires an 83-year-old man to go undercover at a nursing home to expose abuse.
6. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Two events define the 6-part HBO adaptation of Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name about her obsessive pursuit of the identity of the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who haunted California in the 1970s and ‘80s: the capture of Joseph James DeAngelo, Jr., the Golden State Killer himself, some thirty years after his crimes, and the death of Michelle McNamara in her sleep in 2016. With McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt, as executive producer, the series focuses heavily on McNamara’s obsession with the case, and the toll it took on her life, bracketing the events of the book within the context of McNamara’s death and DeAngelo’s capture and trial.
Related: 13 Riveting True Crime Books for Fans of I'll Be Gone In the Dark
5. Class Action Park
Class action lawsuits don’t always make for gripping cinema, but that’s not the case with New Jersey’s Action Park, the notoriously unsafe theme park that is at the center of this “raucous chronicle” of the infamous park that is “disturbing and thrilling in equal measure,” according to the critics consensus at Rotten Tomatoes.
4. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children
If you’re a true crime buff, it’s been a good year to have an HBO subscription, and this “gripping” and “chilling” (Rotten Tomatoes) story of the disappearances and murders of thirty or more young black boys and men in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981 is one of the best reasons. This 5-part series examines the crimes, the investigation, the eventual arrest and trial of 23-year-old Wayne Williams of two other murders, and his continued appeals and claims of innocence.
Related: 11 Best HBO True Crime Documentaries You Can Watch Tonight
Most true crime documentaries are all about finding the guilty party. Time is something else entirely. A “powerful broadside against the flaws of the American justice system,” according to Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus, Time follows the life of Fox Rich who, years earlier, robbed a credit union with her husband. She got a light sentence, and he got 60 years. Using home video footage combined with new film, the documentary follows the life of Fox Rich over the intervening years, and makes a heartfelt case against the injustices that are tied up in our justice system.
Related: 14 Eye-Opening True Crime Books About Wrongful Convictions
2. The Painter and the Thief
A thief stole two of Barbora Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery in Oslo. What followed was the beginning of an unlikely and touching friendship, as the thief, Karl Bertil-Nordland said in court that he took the paintings because he thought they were beautiful. Years in the making, the resulting film won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance and has been called “a compelling portrait of compassion and forgiveness” (Rotten Tomatoes).
1. Athlete A
Few events define the last decade more than the #MeToo movement, and there are few moments in that movement’s history more harrowing than the trial of former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, a convicted serial rapist who was accused of sexually assaulting more than 250 women. As 150 of his victims gave impact statements at Nassar’s trial, this scathing documentary examines not only Nassar’s crimes, but the culture that allowed them to happen unchallenged for decades.
Featured still from "Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children" via Show of Force, Get Lifted Film Company, HBO Documentary Films, and Roc Nation.