16 Best Crime Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Get ready to cry your eyes out, scream in anger, but also rejoice at the powerful love that exists in our world. We will not spoiler the premise of this documentary and urge you not to do so yourself. Instead, we recommend watching it and prepare to be changed forever. Call it true crime if you will, but this documentary is much more. Hailed as one of the most important documentaries of the 2000s, it is a testament to friendship and love, a real-life thriller, and a political denouncement all in one.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Andrew Bagby, Bob Bagby, David Bagby, Dr. Andrew Bagby, Dr. Shirley Turner, Heather Arnold, John Barnard, Jon Atkinson, Kathleen Bagby, Kurt Kuenne, Pat Bagby, Paul Barnard, Zachary Andrew Turner

Director: Kurt Kuenne

Rating: Not Rated

, 2017

Director Bryan Fogel, who you might know as the guy behind Jewtopia, initially set out to chronicle his exploration of doping to win an amateur cycling race. He starts off by reaching out to experts to help him with obtaining and administering said drugs, one of which points him towards Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov eagerly agrees to help him out.

Little did he know that his Russian acquaintance would transform Fogel film from a self-experiment documentary into a true-crime political thriller, when the scientist admits to being involved in a state-sponsored doping scheme of epic proportions on camera. Putin is obviously not amused.

Aside from all the madness that unfolds in this Netflix production, it's Rodchenkov's likeable and eccentric personality that makes the story more relatable and human as well as giving you a rare glimpse into the upper echelons of a country like Russia. As the plot thickens, one can't help but think that Fogel too is in over his head. Rightly award-winning, this is gripping stuff even if you're not into sports!

Genre: Documentary, Mystery

Actor: Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan, Don Catlin, Grigory Rodchenkov, Jacques Rogge, Nikita Kamaev, Richard Pound, Victor Webster

Director: Bryan Fogel

Rating: TV-MA

Simply titled The Imposter, this film by English documentary maker Bart Layton tells an unbelievable tale. Any plot summary doing this film justice has to err on the side of brevity, which is why it will be only one line long: this is the story of Frederic Bourdin, a serial imposter nicknamed “The Chameleon”, who at one time claimed to be the missing son of a family from Texas. The film is so well-shot that it is hard to tell fact from fiction at times and it will force you to remind yourself that this is in fact real life. Expect twists and turns at every corner and brilliant storytelling from real people. If Christopher Nolan created a 48-hour story, it would pale in comparison to this film.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Mystery

Actor: Adam O'Brian, Adam O' Brian, Adam O'Brian, Alan Teichman, Anna Ruben, Carey Gibson, Cathy Dresbach, Charlie Parker, Frederic Bourdin, Ivan Villanueva, Ken Appledorn, María Jesús Hoyos, Mary Twala, Nicholas Barclay

Director: Bart Layton

Rating: R

Joshua Oppenheimer's daring feat is a documentary unlike anything ever done. Despite it being one of the most difficult things to watch for any human being (or because of it), The Act of Killing received praise across the board, including an Academy Award nomination. Without Oppenheimer's efforts, you might have never heard of the unspeakable events that happened when, in 1965-66, Suharto overthrew the then-president of Indonesia and a gangster-led death squad killed almost a million people. Did they pay for their crimes? Quite the contrary: said gangsters went on becoming political mainstays in modern-day Indonesia, are still now heralded as heroes, and admit to all these crimes with a smile and not a hint of regret. The gruesome twist of this documentary is that Oppenheimer asks them to re-enact the killings in surreal, sadistic snuff movies inspired by the murderer's favorite action movies. You are forced to stand idly by as they re-create brutal mass murder and joke about raping a 14-year-old. However, somewhere amidst this terrifying farce, the killers, too, have fleeting moments of realization that what they're doing is wrong. If you make it through this in one piece, try watching its more victim-focused follow-up The Look of Silence. Bone-chilling but very powerful stuff.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adi Zulkadry, Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Safit Pardede, Syamsul Arifin

Director: Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: Not Rated

The movie opens with a guy called Tarzan, saying in a Russian accent: “I called my friend Michel, and I said can I buy a submarine, a used one?” Apparently, two days later he called him back asking: “With, or without missiles?” This should give you a decent idea of how the protagonists of this Tiller-Russell-directed documentary roll. Operation Odessa is the crazy true story of how the FBI, Pablo Escobar, and the Russian Mafia were played by three criminal outsiders in a $35 million submarine deal. Strictly speaking, it belongs in the true crime documentary genre, but it can also be treated as a real-life black comedy. The protagonists are so audacious, it is hard to believe that most of this story is true. The submarine deal story is only the tip of the iceberg here. Crazy, funny, and just really well done!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Juan Almeida, Kristy Galeota, Ludwig Fainberg, Nelson Tony Yester, Richard Gregorie, Tony Galeota

Director: Tiller Russell

Rating: TV-MA

There is footage and coverage to prove that the pizza bomber story actually happened but watching Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist everything is so intriguing it is almost impossible to believe. A pizza-delivery guy shows up to rob a bank with what he says is a bomb secured around his neck, something that he claims is part of a treasure hunt. By robbing the bank, he will unlock the next set of clues that will allow him to defuse the bomb. Bank tellers comply but on the way out he is suddenly arrested by the police, who doubt his claims, handcuff him and keep him at a distance. The device he has around his neck then starts beeping. What follows is one of the most unusual investigations ever led by security forces, brilliantly framed by executive producers Duplass brothers. A perfect follow-up to their other amazing True-crime Netflix collaboration, Wild Wild Country, it’s a tight 4-episodes that is equally terrifying and intriguing.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Barbara Schroeder, Trey Borzillieri

Rating: Not Rated

This groundbreaking documentary follows the USA Olympics sexual abuse case that made headlines in 2015. Through interviews with Olympians, their families, and investigative reporters, it’s also a documentary on the overall culture of abuse in gymnastics: sexual, physical, and emotional.

In one scene from the 1996 Olympics, gold medalist Kerri Strug has to run, vault, and land - all with a severe foot injury that was covered up by her coaches. She does this twice, limping between attempts and crawling off the mat on the second, crying. Meanwhile, her family, her coaches, the spectators - the World - is celebrating.

When she’s carried off, it’s Larry Nassar, the pedophile at the center of the documentary, who carries her.

Athlete A is groundbreaking exactly because it illustrates that the problem is not only with one doctor, or the 54 coaches who were also found guilty of sexual abuse, or the morally bankrupt leadership of USA Gymastics; it’s also about what went so wrong with society to see the abuse of young girls as cause for celebration.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Géza Poszar, Gina Nichols, Jen Sey, John Nichols, Maggie Nichols

Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk

Rating: PG-13

A 40 minute, often jaw-dropping movie about an innocent man accused of killing a teenage girl and the attempt to clear him from the murder. The man in question is Juan Catalan, a young father of two who had had a fair share of interactions with the law. His brother had recently been convicted for another murder case, and the witness to his brother's trial was the girl that Juan Catalan would be accused of killing. The fight to prove that he is innocent goes through different phases, one of which amazingly includes Curb Your Enthusiasm and Larry David himself. It's a crazy story told in a very straightforward manner. Don't expect the impact of Making a Murder or anything like that - but if you're in it for the story, you will not be disappointed.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Jacob LaMendola, Juan Catalan, Juan Rodríguez, Kym Whitley, Larry David, Melissa Catalan, Miguel Catalan, Tasha Boggs, Tim Gibbons, Todd Melnik

Director: Jacob LaMendola

Rating: TV-14

This documentary... man, where do I even begin? It captures the lives of the Friedmans and how their world turned upside down when their father, Arnold, and brother, Jesse, were both convicted of sexually abusing children. The filmmaker interviews victims, family members, and experts to strike you with the two sides of the story. The Oscar nominated film shows real footage from the family which makes it even more of an authentic experience. I won't tell you much more about it- but let me just say, this documentary will leave you speechless.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Arnold Friedman, David Friedman, Elaine Friedman, Jesse Friedman, Seth Friedman

Director: Andrew Jarecki

Rating: Not Rated

Richard Wershe, Jr. was arrested for carrying eight kilos of cocaine in 1988, when he was just 17. He went on to become one of Michigan’s longest-serving non-violent juvenile drug offenders, dubbed by the press as White Boy Rick. His fate was sealed by Michigan law that had just been passed, which stated that anyone found with more than 650 grams of drugs had to be sentenced to mandatory life. 

Featuring interviews with drug lords, journalists, as well as Rick’s mother and attorney, this documentary — along with the follow-up Hollywood biopic, White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey— provides an insightful account into his tragic story. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Chris Hansen, Richard Wershe Jr., Scott M. Burnstein, Shawn Rech

Director: Christopher S. Rech, Shawn Rech

Rating: N/A

, 2016

The unbelievable true story the first mass-shootings in America, and a documentary made with so much attention that it is almost impossible to forget. The animations might put you off if you watch the trailer, but they are what makes this movie so amazing. Added to old tapes and current statements from survivors and heroes, they perfectly fill the gaps in the enactment of what happened. An equally sad, gripping and incredibly well-made work on an event that happened 50 years ago and to which there are still no solutions.

Genre: Animation, Crime, Documentary

Actor: Aldo Ordonez, Blair Jackson, Chris Doubek, John Fitch, Josephine McAdam, Louie Arnette, Monty Muir, Rebecca Beegle, Reece Everett Ryan, Steve Eckelman, Vicky Illk, Violett Beane

Director: Keith Maitland

Rating: TV-14

As the value of ivory appreciated by the Chinese middle-class, the demand for it has skyrocketed. This brought elephants to a dire outlook: extinction in as early as the next 15 years. “Traders in ivory actually want extension in elephants, the less elephants there are the more the price rises” as one of the commentators in the film says. To bring awareness to this threat, filmmakers went undercover for 16 months and followed the ivory from where it was stolen to where it hits the shelves of Hong Kong. The result is a genuine thriller, far more gripping than you’d expect from a documentary. It portrays the brave and hopeful men and women trying to combat these atrocities, the battle they may be losing, and all the obstacles they face. An extremely important watch.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andrea Crosta, Ian Stevenson, Kief Davidson, Prince William, Richard Ladkani

Director: Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani

Rating: N/A, Not Rated