It looks as if most of us are going to spend some time at home, and goodness knows diversions are welcome. Whatever it may say about these bleak times, true-crime documentaries (in feature film and series form) have proven among the most bingeable of entertainments, drawing us ever deeper into their webs of suspects, clues and whiteboards.
Netflix knows that a good plot twist or surprise witness keeps us from reaching for the remote, and the streaming service has filled its library accordingly. These are a few of its best offerings.
‘Making a Murderer’ (Series)
Netflix had its first big nonfiction cultural touchstone in 2015 with this 10-part examination of the trials of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after 18 years when DNA evidence cleared him of one murder, only to find himself back on trial two years later for another. The filmmakers’ access to many of the participants puts the viewer right in the middle of the engrossing trial, and their skill for constructing cliffhangers makes it hard to resist bingeing the entire thing. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘The Staircase’ (Series)
The most influential predecessor to “Making a Murderer” was most likely this Peabody Award-winning docu-series, which originally aired in eight parts on French and British television in 2004, with additional episodes added in 2013 and 2018. Covering the arrest and trial of the novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife in December of 2001, it initially seems a fairly straightforward story; it turns out to be anything but. The director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade uses the expansive running time and his extensive access to Peterson’s attorneys to construct a detail-oriented account of how a defense is mounted and presented, and to delve into the fascinating contradictions of its enigmatic subject. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Evil Genius’ (Series)
The bizarre death of Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man forced to rob a bank with a bomb attached to his body, is the focus of this 2018 four-parter from the directors Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri. The filmmakers immerse themselves in the criminal subculture of Erie, Penn., and find a colorful cast of characters there — particularly Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who may or may not be the mastermind of the title. Like many a good docu-series, it embraces the story’s complexity, following the many strands, fake-outs and dead ends of this spider web of a crime, in which the actions and motivations of everyone (including the victim) are up for debate.
It’s not hard to anoint Errol Morris the godfather of contemporary true crime cinema, as his 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line” established so many of the genre’s conventions. If nothing else, it seemed like good manners for Netflix to invite the filmmaker to craft this masterful blend of documentary and drama, truth and fiction, fact and conjecture. Focusing on the apparent suicide of Frank Olson in 1953, a civilian scientist working for the U.S. Army, Morris investigates not only the event in question but also the cloudy circumstances surrounding its subsequent explanation — all wrapped around the filmmaker’s conversations with Olson’s son, who has spent most of his life trying to make sense of his father’s death. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Abducted in Plain Sight’ (Feature)
Many of the best true-crime documentaries have a pronounced “truth is stranger than fiction” element, but Skye Borgman’s 2019 feature turns that aspect up to 11. It tells the story of Jan Broberg Felt, who was abducted by a neighbor and family friend, Robert Berchtold, when she was only 12 years old — and then, improbably and inexplicably, abducted again several years later. It sounds impossible, but Borgman deftly demonstrates how her abductor exploited the trust of his community (and, shockingly, his proximity to her parents) for his nefarious purpose.
‘Tell Me Who I Am’ (Feature)
When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he woke from a coma with no memories at all, of his life or the people in it. He remembered only Marcus, his twin brother, who was left to fill in all of the gaps. But there is more to Alex’s story than his brother told him — childhood secrets and horrifying traumas, which he consciously chose to withhold. And given the choice, the director Ed Perkins asks, would you do the same? This gutting and powerful documentary reconstructs the real story of Alex’s childhood as he discovers it, and in doing so, asks vital questions about the rose-colored glasses through which we consider our past and present. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘The Keepers’ (Series)
This seven-part series begins as an investigation into the savage murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a half-century old Baltimore cold case that may implicate the police department, the local Archdiocese and the Catholic Church. But it’s not just another sprawling, shocking page-turner (though it is certainly that, and a gripping one to boot). The director Ryan White’s sensitive presentation and brilliant structure refuses to sensationalize the material, devoting long, haunting stretches of the series to victims’ trauma and institutional maleficence. It never lets the viewer forget about the human toll of this crime, and not just on the woman at its center. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Team Foxcatcher’ (Feature)
The events dramatized in the 2014 Oscar nominee “Foxcatcher,” and the actions of its central character, John du Pont, seemed so grotesque they almost had to be exaggerated. This bravura documentary account suggests, however, that the dramatists soft-balled the strangeness. The trove of news reports, home movies and self-produced infomercials presented here paint a fascinating picture of an unbalanced, paranoid danger, a ticking bomb that everyone around him pretended not to hear lest they risk losing access to his money and power. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Audrie and Daisy’ (Feature)
The stories of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, two teenage girls sexually assaulted by peers and then subjected to online harassment and worse, are paired and explored in this compelling 2016 indictment of technological apathy and rape culture. One story results in a suicide; the other ends in activism, and the directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk suggest that those wildly divergent outcomes have everything to do with communities in which young women like these are not to be believed, or even trusted. It’s a powerful, infuriating work. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Amanda Knox’ (Feature)
This 2016 mystery takes a deep dive into the arrest and trial of Amanda Knox, an American student in Italy convicted of participating in her roommate’s murder. But the film is just as interested in the intense media scrutiny surrounding the case and in how the biases and excesses that informed that coverage may have filtered into the courtroom. And it’s no open-and-shut case; the filmmakers keep their subject an enigma and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about who she is and what she knew. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Wild Wild Country’ (Series)
“I tell people now,” chuckles one of the residents of Antelope, Ore., “and they still don’t believe it.” It’s hard to blame them. Maclain and Chapman Way’s six-part documentary exposé of the guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the followers who took over that desert area in the early 1980s is a twisty, twisted tale of guns, sex, immigration fraud, wiretapping, mass food poisoning and attempted assassinations. Every new ripple is more jaw-dropping than the last. (Read the New York Times review.)
‘Long Shot’ (Feature)
Most true-crime documentaries traffic in so much death and unpleasantness, reveling in gory details and villainous sociopathy, that the notion of a “feel good” true-crime doc seems odd. But that’s exactly what the director Jacob LaMendola got when he spun the yarn of Juan Catalan, arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, whose alibi was unexpectedly confirmed by a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” location shoot. (Larry David himself appears to take some credit.) Catalan’s triumph is both thrilling and moving — and the film runs an efficient 40 minutes, which makes it the perfect chaser to a daylong docu-series binge.