best Netflix original true crime

Netflix has turned true crime documentaries into must-binge-TV. With a series of films and docu-series, the streaming service rejuvenated the somewhat stale sub-genre, churning out stunning, shocking works that resonate in ways many past true crime docs haven’t. This week, Netflix has revived a classic true crime docu-series – The Staircaseadding new episodes to the previously-completed show. Now, The Staircase grows an ever-crowded line-up of Netflix true crime docs.

Sorting through all of these documentaries and docu-series to find the good stuff can be a bit overwhelming. With that in mind, I’ve checked my sources, pinned a bunch of notes up on a cork-board, connected all those notes with string, and compiled a list of the best Netflix original true crime documentaries.

10. Amanda Knox

American college student Amanda Knox was accused, tried, and convicted – twice – of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. But Knox’s conviction(s) were overturned, and she’s now free. The Knox case made headlines across the world, and Knox’s strange behavior following the murder was more than enough to convict her in the public eye. In Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s documentary Amanda Knox, Knox gets to tell her story herself, via talking-head interviews. Amanda Knox doesn’t offer much by way of new information – you might actually learn more about the whole affair by reading the Amanda Knox Wikipedia page. But the film’s is well-put-together, and the dramatic, shocking story draws you in. This isn’t the best of Netflix’s true crime docs, but it’s a good start.

 

9. Wild Wild Country

What makes Maclain Way and Chapman Way’s Wild Wild Country so shocking is the fact you probably have never heard of the events in this film, even though they happened not very long ago (the 1980s). Yet at the time, the events featured in Wild Wild Country were national news (there’s even a scene where Johnny Carson sings a song about them on The Tonight Show). In the 1980s, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and a community of followers set up an entire city Oregon. The locals did not take kindly to these outsiders, and tensions mounted. Meanwhile, within the community, Sheela was slowly amassing power, and wielding it in dangerous – potentially deadly – ways. At 6 episodes, Wild Wild Country overstays its welcome (this story could’ve been told in 4 episodes, easily). But for the bulk of its runtime, Wild Wild Country enthralls as we watch this entire community spring up, only to come crashing down. By the time the series ends, you might find yourself thinking that there was no way any of this stuff happened. But it did.

 

8. Casting JonBenet

Who killed six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey on Christmas Day in 1996? Was it her mother? Her father? Her brother? An outsider? We may never know the answer, and Kitty Green’s haunting documentary Casting JonBenet doesn’t really attempt to find one. This is not your standard true crime doc – Green assembles a group of local actors who live in and around the Colorado town where Ramsey lived and died, and has them audition to star in a (fictional) movie about Ramsey’s murder. This strange set-up results in revealing, often heartbreaking moments that dig not so much into Ramsey’s murder, but into her homelife. You come to understand her family and their actions beyond the tabloid headlines, and the end result is remarkable. This unorthodox approach may turn casual true crime fans off, but those looking for something unique in a crowded sub-genre will find something special here.

 

7. Long Shot

If you don’t have time to get through a full documentary or an even longer docu-series, this is for you. Long Shot is only 40 minutes long, and those minutes fly-bye. This is also the most upbeat entry on the list, so if you’re looking for true crime flavor without the crushing misery, look no further! In 2003, Los Angeles Dodgers fan Juan Catalan was arrested for the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old-girl. But Catalan didn’t do it – he was at a Dodger’s game at the time of the crime. The only problem was, he had no concrete way to prove that. Enter the most unlikeliest of alibis: Larry David. Yes, you read that right. As it so happened, David and the Curb Your Enthusiasm crew were filming an episode of Curb at Dodger Stadium the night of the murder – while Catalan was there. Catalan’s lawyer rushes to comb through hours and hours of B-roll footage with the hopes of finding his client nestled among a huge crowd of thousands of fans. It all makes for a breezy, amusing, ultimately uplifting mini-documentary.

 

6. American Vandal

Including American Vandal on this list might be considered cheating, since the series is 100% fictional and not actually “true” crime. But to ignore it would be a huge misstep. This Netflix series is actually a parody of other Netflix true crime shows, and it’s pretty damn spot-on. Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda find clever, hilarious ways to apply modern true crime doc staples – recreations, swooping drone footage, shocking twists just as one episode is ending – to an utterly ludicrous crime. The mystery at the heart of American Vandal rests in one simple question: who did the dicks? In the film, a high school parking is the scene of a crime when someone spray paints several large cartoon phalasus on every parked car in sight. Everyone suspects local screw-up Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), but classmate Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) begins making a documentary film to see if Dylan might actually be innocent. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and while it seems silly at first, American Vandal has unexpected layers that will definitely surprise you. If you’re a fan of true crime shows, you’re going to love this.

 

5. Evil Genius

In 2003, pizza delivery man Brian Wells calmly strolled into a bank and robbed it. He robbed it in a most unconventional way – with a note, a cane-gun, a strange metal device locked around his neck. The device turned out to be a bomb, and eventually the bomb went off, killing Wells. Wells’ death is bizarre and horrible, but it’s only the beginning of a truly strange, deranged story. Evil Genius looks into the people who were responsible for Wells’ death, focusing-in on Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a mentally unwell individual who may or may not have masterminded the whole ordeal. Evil Genius pushes all the true crime series buttons, complete with the almost-cliched shocking moments that crop up at the end of each episode. Yet even though this doc doesn’t break new ground, it’s so fascinating, and ultimately so disturbing, that it’ll have you hooked. You won’t find any easy answers here, but that’s the point. Brian Wells’ murder was senseless, so making sense of it isn’t easy.

 

4. The Staircase

The Staircase was first released in 2003, and while that’s not very long ago, it feels like a true crime doc from a completely different era. Yes, there are shocking twists, but this series, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is more subdued in nature. The focus here isn’t so much on the crime as it is on the build-up, and often crushing drudgery of a lengthy murder trial. The story focuses on Michael Peterson, and the death (or should we say murder?) of his wife, Kathleen. In 2001, Michael called 9-1-1 and said he found Kathleen sprawled out and bleeding at the foot of a staircase in their home. Kathleen died before the paramedics arrived, and almost immediately, law enforcement began to suspect foul play. Michael Peterson was soon on trial, where he was accused of murdering Kathleen, and things only got worse from there – in the course of the investigation it was revealed Michael had a connection to another woman who was found dead at the foot of a staircase. Audiences who have grown accustomed to the modern style of true crime might be a little thrown-off by the laid-back, casual nature of The Staircase. But if you stick with it, you’ll find one of the most compelling entries in the genere to date. Best of all, Netflix commissioned three new episodes for the series, and these new episodes bring a sense of closure to the story that the original incarnation of the series never had.

 

3. Making A Murderer

Making A Murderer wasn’t Netflix’s first true crime docu-series, but it’s certainly the one that got the most attention. While binging TV has sort of eliminated the so-called “water cooler show”, Making A Murderer managed to become a bonafide cultural phenomenon – practically everyone was talking about it when it debuted in 2015. The story follows Steven Avery, a man who served 18 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of sexual assault and attempted murder. Avery was released in 2003, and that should’ve been the end of his story. But in 2005, Avery was arrested again, and charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach. Did Avery do it, or was he framed by a zealous police force out to get him? Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have received their fair share of criticism since the series ended for omitting several key details from the true story – a claim they don’t dispute. But while Making A Murderer may not paint a complete picture of what really happened in the Avery case, it is one of the very best examples of a modern true crime docuseries. Every episode is meticulously designed to engage and outrage the viewer. Is it manipulative? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make Making A Murderer any less compelling.

 

2. The Keepers

The Keepers didn’t have as much of a cultural impact as Making A Murderer, but it is the superior docu-series. The Keepers does revolve around a murder mystery – the killing of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Catholic high school teacher – but the series has much more on its mind than mystery. Instead, The Keepers is a reflection on shattered lives and crumbling faith. A chronicle of remarkable, damaged people poking through darkness to find some sort of light. There is relentless evil here — but there’s good, as well. It culminates in an ultimately heartbreaking saga with no easy answers. There’s also a message of hope buried under all the sadness here – a story of survivors, who went through hell and came out the other end emotionally destroyed, but still standing. Quite simply, The Keepers will take your breath away.

 

1. Wormwood

Errol Morris changed the face of true crime documentaries, so it’s only fitting he’d return to blow every other Netflix true crime doc out of the water with the brilliant, mind-bending experience that is Wormwood. Most modern true crime doc techniques – recreations, talking-head interviews, inserts of newspaper clippings flashing across the screen – were pioneered for the sub-genre by Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. Wormwood, in sharp contrast, is almost nothing like that. Rather than do the same thing over again, Morris employs a much more unique technique, combining talking-head interviews with lengthy, cinematic recreations featuring recognizable actors. It’s part narrative, part interview, and you really haven’t seen anything like it. There is, of course, a crime at the center of the story: the 1953 death of scientist and CIA employee Frank Olson. Olson allegedly jumped to his death from a hotel room window. Or maybe he was pushed. Or maybe he was drugged. Or maybe… Well, to say more would ruin the story Morris is setting up. And here’s the thing: there is no official answer. Instead, Morris presents several alternate answers, and leaves the rest up to you. While recreations of Frank Olson’s life and death (featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank) play out, Morris also intercuts interviews with the real Frank Olson’s son, Eric. Eric Olson has devoted his life to trying to figure out just what the hell happened to his father, and by filming him, Morris somehow makes Eric Olson’s obsession our obsession. It might sound like hyperbole, but I honestly believe no one has ever made a movie like this before. And I doubt they ever will again.

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