17 Best True Crime Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

, 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

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

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

Despite what its title suggests, the real thrill of this documentary isn’t the mysterious 1998 robbery of a royal Austrian jewel, but the many other criminal escapades of Gerald Blanchard’s that are chronicled here. Blanchard, who appears on camera for much of the doc, remains cagey (for legal reasons) about how exactly he orchestrated the titular crime, but even if he divulged his secrets, the jewel theft pales in comparison to his earlier exploits: his ballsy teenage shoplifting, slippery escapes from police custody, and subsequent spree of audacious bank heists.

The Jewel Thief benefits from a wealth of remarkable footage thanks to Blanchard's penchant for videotaping his criminal antics. This exhibitionist tendency is corroborated by testimonies from the many other interviewees featured here, including the two policemen who received taunting photos of Blanchard’s loot during their years-long cat-and-mouse chase. As indicated by the opening titles — “This is a true story… Mostly” — Blanchard also has a tendency to embellish his stories, which makes the fact-checking provided by these other participants a wise inclusion by the filmmakers. Ultimately, though, having such an unreliable subject isn’t a handicap — it’s a blessing, giving the documentary a winkingly ludicrous edge that helps it stand out in an overstuffed genre.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Director: Landon Van Soest

Rating: R

The story of how Dave Kroupa excitedly joined online dating sites only to meet a murderous stalker is both distressing and fascinating. You feel for the guy and wonder how a person could commit such heinous crimes. That in itself is a feat: to be genuinely shocked despite the prevalence of true crime documentaries. But Lover, Stalker, Killer takes way too long to get to the point. For a good chunk of the documentary, you’re left wondering how the pieces will fall into place, all while the interviewees are hyping it up to be something truly horrific as if it were a movie or a game, and not an actually traumatic moment that forever altered the course of Kroupa and his family’s life. It’s good that we get a first-hand account of the case from Kroupa himself because otherwise, this would be another case of desensitized, sensationalized fare. The central story is interesting to be sure, but a lack of technical flare and in-depth questioning makes it, overall, flimsy and overlong.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Actor: Cari Farver, Chris Maher, Dave Kroupa, Ryan Avis

Director: Sam Hobkinson

Rating: R

If you’re expecting a twisty and thrilling look at a dangerous group of hackers who hide deep within a military bunker in Europe, and who refer to their entire operation as “straight from a James Bond movie,” then you might be disappointed with Cyberbunker, a dragging documentary that relies too heavily on talking heads for momentum. It takes 30 minutes to establish the relevance of these figures, and a full hour before it finally explains the actual crime and wrongdoings they’re complicit in. The most interesting parts of the case, like the FBI’s involvement, Cyberbunker’s links to the propagation of child pornography, and the group’s advocacy on internet privacy, are completely buried beneath a stack of unnecessary tidbits. I appreciate the effort of the filmmakers and the interviewees coming together to make something decently informative, but by the end of it, you’re left wondering whether all this was better off as a Wikipedia article.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Director: Kilian Lieb, Max Rainer

Rating: PG-13