These films may inspire outrage, turn your stomach, frighten you, or make you marvel at how low humans can sink. They may not encourage you to sleep well at night. But they all offer incredibly well-crafted true crime stories.
An urban legend comes to frightening life in this 2009 doc, in which filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio investigate the child murders that gave them nightmares while growing up on New York's Staten Island.
When filmmaker Kurt Kuenne's best friend from childhood, Andrew Bagby, was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Kuenne set out to document Andrew's life using clips from DIY movies they'd shot growing up and interviews with people who'd known and loved him. When Andrew's killer revealed she was pregnant with his baby, the project became even more urgent, particularly after his lookalike son, Zachary, was born. "Wrenching" doesn't even begin to describe what happens next; it's not spoiled in the trailer above, and we won't spoil it here, either.
Using a blend of news footage, contemporary interviews, and innovative reenactments, Bart Layton's film pieces together the story of a missing Texas boy who turned up years later in Europe and was welcomed back into the bosom of his family ... until his true identity was revealed. It's a startling look at guilt, the complexity of family dynamics, and the persuasive power of deception.
Sarah Burns, David McMahon (her husband), and Ken Burns (Sarah's father, the acclaimed doc maker) unpack the crime that shocked 1989 New York — the rape and beating of a white female jogger in Central Park, who had no recollection of the attack due to her injuries — and the struggle for justice among the five young African American and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of it. The film contextualizes the events within a specific time and place, but also makes a broader statement about racism in America that's unfortunately still quite timely.
Errol Morris' film is also about a wrongful conviction, this time of a man accused of killing a Dallas police officer in 1976; the documentary actually helped exonerate him. Still highly influential, The Thin Blue Line is the O.G. of contemporary true crime docs, and it's as thrilling today as it was when it came out in 1988.
Two series, well worth it if you've got the time: the made-for-French-TV series The Staircase, an in-depth study of the trial of Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife in their North Carolina. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, watch the additional two episodes charting Peterson's continuing saga, which ain't over yet: he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2003, but thanks to the subsequent discrediting of a prosecution witness, he's been out of jail and awaiting a new trial since 2011.
And, of course, there's the Paradise Lost trilogy of films, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's gripping, exhaustively detailed chronicle of the accused, convicted, and ultimately released West Memphis Three. For even more on the case, toss in Amy Berg's excellent West of Memphis, too.