Film & TV
Here at The Lineup, we’re always on the hunt for killer true crime documentaries. Not just the docs that everyone else has seen, but the little-known titles and the tragically overlooked gems.
So we dug through the depths of Netflix to find the best true crime documentaries you need to watch right now. What are you waiting for? Grab the remote and get your fix.
Updated 7/2018. This article covers titles available to U.S. Netflix users.
Out of Thin Air (2017)
Forty years after Iceland’s most notorious murder cases, director and documentarian Dylan Howitt attempts to chronicle the convoluted circumstances around two men’s mysterious disappearances, and how seven people ended up confessing to their murder.
In 1974, an 18-year-old male vanished after attending a party. Months later, after driving to a cafe following a late night call, a 32-year-old father was never heard from or seen again. Authorities turned to a group of young people involved in a recent embezzling scheme who would eventually confess—despite limited evidence—and served out their sentences.
Decades later, questions about how their confessions were obtained, including alleged torture by authorities, have been raised, calling attention to one community's horrific response to others’ horrific acts.
The Keepers (2017)
Who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik is the question that begins Netflix’s smash hit true crime docu-series, The Keepers. But as any professional binge-watcher knows, the real story is much darker and far more complicated than that. The Keepers has it all—abuse, religion, history, murder, family secrets, conspiracy, and a decades-old cold case. Throw in some dedicated amateur sleuths who will stop at nothing to discover the truth of what happened to their beloved teacher and you’ll see an obsession in your future.
Casting JonBenet (2017)
This unusual documentary about the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey approaches its subject through the lens of casting a fictional film on the case. Director Kitty Green interviews actors from the place of the crime, Boulder, Colorado, in the form of auditions for the main players of the story: JonBenet herself, her mother Patsy, her father John, and more. Through their auditions, the actors reveal their thoughts on the case, creating a compelling portrait of the lasting impact of JonBenet’s murder on the Boulder community and on society in general.
This 1992 documentary focuses on the remaining three brothers of the Ward family. The Wards grew up in a tiny town in upstate New York: At the time of filming, Munnsville had less than 300 residents. The brothers owned and worked on the family farm, were mostly illiterate, and made less than $7,000 a year between the four of them. When the second youngest brother died in 1990, it was at first thought it was simply due to poor health. Then, it became clear that the youngest, Delbert, had killed him—although it seemed to be a mercy killing due to William’s failing health. It never becomes fully clear just what happened to William on June 6, 1990. But the portrait painted of this family will fascinate.
The Confessions of Thomas Quick (2015)
After a history of drug use, assault, and molestation of young boys, Sture Bergwall was sentenced in 1991 for armed robbery and sent to an institution for criminals with severe mental health diagnoses. It would be there in the midst of a therapy session that Bergwall’s evil alter-ego “Thomas Quick” revealed he was behind more than thirty30 murders that took place between 1964 and 1993 in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland.
Quick would be convicted of eight murders. But in 2008, journalist Hannes Råstam combined through Bergwall’s 50,000-page file to uncover that there was little to no evidence outside of Quick’s confessions linking him to the crimes. In this 90-minute documentary, director Brian Hill looks at how one man’s mind and the quest for justice resulted in one of the most notorious cases of murder and false imprisonment.
Who Took Johnny? (2014)
The disappearance of Johnny Gosch is nearly too strange and tragic to believe. Johnny, a 12-year-old paperboy, disappeared on his route in Des Moines early one morning in 1982. The case went cold, despite the disappearance of a second paperboy two years later and reports of Johnny being seen in Oklahoma.
But things got really odd when Noreen, Johnny’s mother, claimed she was visited by Johnny in 1997, accompanied by a strange man who wouldn’t let him speak about where he had been. This 2014 documentary follows Noreen’s ongoing search for Johnny and puts forth fascinating (and terrifying) theories about his disappearance.
Evil Genius (2018)
Evil Genius brought one of the strangest true crime cases back into the light. In 2003, a pizza delivery worker standing outside a local bank with a bomb locked around his neck was spotted by the police. Believing that the bomb was fake but that the man posed a real threat, the police put Brian Wells in handcuffs. As Wells leaned against a police car, the bomb went off. News teams broadcast the man’s gruesome death. The story truly only gets weirder from here. The four episode mini-series will keep you riveted til the very end.
The Fear of 13 (2015)
Being sentenced for 105 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit is beyond nightmarish. But that’s exactly what happened to Nick Yarris, who was convicted of murder and sat on death row for 21 years before DNA evidence vindicated him in 2004. The Fear of 13 is Nick’s story, narrated by him and featuring only him, in a unique one-man-show.
Glory Daze (2015)
Power and attention are their kinds of drugs as Ramon Fernandez’s documentary on the rise and demise of a prominent group of New York clubgoers proves. Born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, Michael Alig was a smart, gay outcast in his hometown. Eager to find a place where he belonged, he left for Fordham University before transferring to the Fashion Institute of Technology where he met artist Keith Haring’s boyfriend.
It was then Alig would begin his rapid, drug-induced indoctrination and eventual takeover of New York’s club scene during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Known as the Club Kids, Alig’s crew gained local and national cultural notoriety even before he and a friend murdered, dismembered, and disposed of another club scene member in the Hudson River. Fernandez carefully and vibrantly profiles Alig as the performer and murderer, from his humble beginnings to the not so humble homicidal bragging that ultimately put Alig behind bars.
The Staircase (2004)
It would be very easy to argue that The Staircase was the series that made the true crime genre popular. And when Netflix announced that they’d financed another three episodes focusing on Michael Peterson’s final trial, viewers were thrilled to take another look at the infamous case. Whether you’ve been keeping up with the series since 2004 or you’re looking for your next great binge, The Staircase is here for you.
The Karma Killings (2016)
Between 2005 and 2006, children simply started disappearing in Nithari, India, a suburb of New Delhi. As many as 15 children vanished during this period. The police traced the disappearances back to one house, and the man who lived there confessed that he cut them up and cooked them for dinner. The horrific crime saturated India’s media, where the case seemed to grow larger and more complicated by the day. The police were accused of being involved inciting class violence and demands for justice. The lurid story of these murders is traced in The Karma Killings.
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
If you saw 2014’s Foxcatcher, starring Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell, you’ll be familiar with the rise and fall of the very wealthy and very eccentric John E. du Pont. It was du Pont’s dream to build an American Olympic wrestling team that would dominate the sport. He brought several athletes to live and train in his state-of-the-art gym on his sprawling family farm. But somehow du Pont’s dreams ended in cold-blooded murder—it was a tragic, seemingly senseless crime that few could have anticipated.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s journey to interview Aileen Wuornos, one of America’s most notorious female serial killers, is the subject of this 1993 feature. The documentary chronicles Wuornos’s trials and tribulations through the legal system, most notably, the lack of support she received from her original attorney.
Related: 9 Notorious Female Serial Killers
Ten years later, in 2003, Broomfield returned to Wuornos as a subject in Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which follows the events leading up to Wuornos’s execution in 2002. Charlize Theron, for her preparation to play Wuornos in the film Monster, used the interview footage from both documentaries to get a sense of her mannerisms and personality.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)
In this dark mystery, directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller take viewers back to the 1930s to uncover how a new Eden became a hell on Earth. In 1929, German elites Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch left their partners for a new life in the entirely remote Galapagos island of Floreana.
What they wouldn’t know was that their letters home would be leaked to the press, revealing their life of solitary love. Soon after, they were joined by another German couple, and then an obscure and commanding neurotic Austrian woman with two lovers and a love for guns. Using voice actors like Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger, as well as archival footage from and of the island’s transplants, The Galapagos Affair recounts the beautiful rise and dark fall of paradise.
Using rotoscopic animation and narration from the surviving victims, The Tower recreates the events of August 1, 1966, when a lone sniper went up to the clocktower on the University of Texas at Austin campus and started firing at random. By the end of his rampage, 16 people were killed and several dozen were wounded. The animation makes it feel like you are watching these events unfold in real time. The Tower is one of the most compelling movies of 2016, regardless of genre.
This heartbreaking documentary released in 2016 covers the difficult terrain of the Newtown Massacre on December 14, 2012, when 20 elementary school students and six of their teachers were murdered by gunman Adam Lanza. With the cooperation of several of the victims’ families, filmmaker Kim A. Snyder paints a searing portrait of grief and anger at the system that led to this horrific event.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
When Wild Wild Country debuted, it was the center of conversations for weeks to come. The cult that took over an Oregon town in the 1980s was back—and everyone had opinions about Sheela. If you somehow managed to escape the hubbub around this series when it came out back in early 2018, there’s no better time than now to discover the strangest story ever told by Netflix.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Errol Morris has become regarded as a veteran true crime documentarian with a knack for profiling the peculiar. His latest is Wormwood, a four and a half hour, six-part Netflix miniseries that harnesses the narrative strengths of previous screen successes like The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and Tabloid while redefining his signature visual style and the genre itself.
In this docudrama with a fictional twist, Morris takes on a potential suicide/alleged murder, a CIA cover-up, LSD experiments, and secret government conspiracies that stretch back decades. Using re-enactments and long-form interviews, Morris uses a deceased agent’s son looking for answers to help find truth in bizarre tragedy.
The Seven Five (2014)
New York City was not the most pleasant place to live in the 1980s. It was the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, crime was at an all-time high—and criminal activity had seeped into the ranks of the New York City police department. NYPD officer Michael Dowd worked in the city’s 75th precinct for 10 years, running drug deals and accepting bribes. His arrest and subsequent trial led to one of the largest scandals in NYPD history, revealing dozens of crooked cops in its wake.
A Murder in the Park (2014)
There have been plenty of documentaries about wrongful conviction, a hot-button issue in the American criminal justice system. But what if the person released may have actually committed the crime? A Murder in the Park explores the other side of the coin with the story of Anthony Porter. Porter was convicted of murdering two people in 1982. His conviction was then overturned due to the work of a Northwestern professor and his students. Soon though, many of the Northwestern class’s claims would be called into question. This disturbing and overlooked documentary is a fascinating account of a deeply complex case.
Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses (2015)
In 2007, Janet Moses’s death was plastered all over the news and local paper headlines. The young Wainuiomata mother was only 22 when she drowned after four days of a brutal exorcism conducted at the hands of her family, an effort to lift a makutu or curse. The nine family members involved were charged with manslaughter after attempting to, in their eyes, relieve Moses of a grave disturbance within her.
In this docudrama, viewers are taken back to and through the difficult days leading up to Moses’s death. Through expert interviews, court testimony and dramatic reenactments, you are offered a look into how one family’s deep, determined love mixed so dangerously with cultural belief to tragic effect.
My Friend Rockefeller (2015)
The cons to end all cons was pulled by a man named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter—though you may know him as your friend, Rockefeller. In addition to masquerading as a member of New York’s storied Rockefeller family, Gerhartsreiter had five other identities he used in the decades before his capture. When his wife grew suspicious, the whole show unraveled, revealing a long list of people he’d victimized over the years. Not even the FBI could believe the lengths to which he’d gone to make a fraudulent life for himself. And, yes, those lengths included murder.
Shadow of Truth (2016)
Thirteen-year-old Tair Rada was found brutally murdered on a cold December day in 2006. Her body had been stuffed inside a locked bathroom stall at her school in Israel. Her murder rocked the community, leaving children afraid to attend school. Just a week later, a Ukrainian immigrant named Roman Zadorov was arrested and confessed to Tair’s murder. But Zadorov’s confession was just the beginning of the mystery of Tair’s death. Many things just didn’t add up, from DNA evidence to other possible suspects, leading many to believe that Zadorov may have been wrongfully convicted.
The Witness (2015)
The name Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese should sound familiar. In the days following her death in a Queens, New York alley on March 13, 1964, the circumstances surrounding her horrible fate were plastered all over local newspapers. Her murder also became known as a case of deadly apathy after The New York Times and several other newspapers published that nearly 40 area witnesses heard Cathy’s cries for help but did nothing to save her.
This 2015 documentary explores the reported and misreported facts of Kitty’s final night, the man who murdered her, the people who heard her dying, and Kitty’s brother, who has been haunted by 38 people’s supposed inhumanity for decades.
Featured photo from "Evil Genius" via Duplass Brothers Productions