From the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde to the American gangster genre, Hollywood has a habit of capitalizing on the rich narratives of true crimes. Despite the natural thrill of tagging along with any vigilante thief or vengeance-fueled investigator, there’s an undeniable feeling of extra adrenaline and fascination that comes from knowing such reckless and rare instances really happened. Or, at least are based on what really happened.
While the true crime documentary genre has become hyper-saturated by streamers’ ravenous appetite for titles like Tiger King and Don’t F*ck With Cats, these based-on-a-true crime movies lend a bit of emotional distance and a lot of narrative flair to their stories. Take those news stories up a notch and check out the dramatic retellings in the following titles.
Though technically not a feature film, this Netflix miniseries provides a twisted yet intimate view into the series of rape cases in Colorado and Washington state covered in the 2015 news story, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Toni Colette, Merritt Weaver, and Kaitlyn Dever deliver gripping lead performances.
Documentarian Liz Garbus’ scripted feature Lost Girls provides a raw telling of one mother’s independent investigation of her daughter’s disappearance. What she uncovers, though, reveals more than she intended when her trail leads to a series of mysterious killings of sex workers.
All Good Things
Ryan Gosling stars as Robert Durst, the son of a New York real estate tycoon who becomes the suspect behind a series of murders (including that of his wife, played by Kirsten Dunst). Among the film’s acclaim was praise from none other than Durst himself, who agreed to an interview with the film’s director following the film.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, an author whose failing career led her to begin forging letters from successful deceased writers. But a scam can only go so long, and the literary pariah finds herself in a heap of trouble bigger than what led her to start peddling counterfeit letters.
The Bling Ring
A capstone of true Sofia Coppolla directorial style, The Bling Ring is a flashy and deeply vapid snapshot of the Hollywood Hills teenaged crime ring made infamous for breaking into and robbing multiple celebrities’ homes in the late 2000s. If its thumping trailers don’t draw you in, Emma Watson’s performance as a shallow, nihilistic valley girl surely will.
Reversal of Fortune
Based on Alan Dershowitz’s book, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case, this docudrama explores the unexplained coma of socialite Sunny von Bülow and its consequential attempted murder trial. Following her husband’s defense against the charges, the film brings a close lens not just to the incident itself, but also to the ambiguities of marriage, wealth, and morality.
Johnny Depp stars as infamous Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in this true crime drama set in the 1970s. Tracing Bulger’s cunning double-alliance with local law enforcement to advance his criminal activity, Black Mass illustrates why Whitey is still a household name in the Boston area.
In Cold Blood
Based upon Truman Capote’s non-fiction book of the same name, In Cold Blood tells the true story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Often cited as an early example of new realism in cinema, the film noire captures the truly cold-blooded nature of two killers in action.
Based on the infamous Snowtown murders in South Australia, Snowtown reveals the chilling backstory of serial killer John Bunting. Told through the eyes of the unsuspecting Harvey family, the film provides an inside look at Bunting’s recruitment of young men into his ring of righteous murder.
Steve Carrell delivers a transformative performance as John du Pont, a millionaire who develops a fascination with Olympic wrestlers: specifically, brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. The film is a grueling display of toxic masculinity and manipulation, eventually ending in murder.
Despite what the trailer and posters might make you think, American Hustle is about more than Amy Adams’ cleavage. The movie stylishly riffs on the FBI’s 1970s ABSCAM sting operation, and is filled with as many twists and double-crossings as era-appropriate pop songs and swishy dance moves.
Catch Me If You Can
Zodiac wasn’t necessarily the movie horror fans—or fans of David Fincher’s previous Seven—expected. Instead, it’s a process movie about the people who tried to unmask California’s Zodiac Killer. Studiously researched and impeccably shot, Zodiac turns into something larger and more foreboding than a spate of murders. Amazon iTunes
Memories of Murder
Before South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made international thrillers like Snowpiercer and Okja, he crafted this gem of a murder mystery, based on Korea’s first serial murders. He brings his signature pitch-black humor to the story of two detectives in over their heads trying to solve the puzzling killings.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The best and boldest thing about The Wolf of Wall Street, possibly Scorsese’s most indulgent movie, is how fun it makes its crimes look. Scorsese and writer Terence Winter condense fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir down to basically the most sensational parts, putting you in the headspace of a man who sees other people’s money as his own playpen.
Scorsese gets three movies on this list, and deserves all of them. Casino is an underrated ’90s gangster effort living in Goodfellas‘ shadow. The cast—Robert De Niro as a low-level mobster making his way up the casino racket (based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal) and Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci as the wife and friend who threaten to tear it down—is entirely perfect.
Summer of Sam
Dog Day Afternoon
The French Connection
All the President’s Men
One of the great horror movies of the 21st century, Wolf Creek is also the main reason I’m scared to visit Australia. Fictionalizing two different Aussie backpack murderers, it follows three sexy tourists venturing into the Outback who meet a stranger and… well, you know the rest. What separates Wolf Creek from other slashers is its unflinching directness; not since Michael Myers has there been a depiction of a man made of such pure evil.
Anatomy of a Murderer
Jimmy Stewart is as flawless as he ever was wavering between comic and dramatic in the Otto Preminger-directed courtroom drama, based on a novel written by a defense attorney and inspired by one of his cases. Few movies seem to grasp the moral ambiguity of the legal system while also being both realistic and tense.
Spotlight could’ve been really boring. Not because the story itself—about the conspiracy to cover up child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston—is boring. But the Best Picture-winner chooses to focus on the perspective of the journalists who unearthed that scandal by spending a lot of time at their desks calling people up. Remarkably, director Tom McCarthy’s movie manages to improve on All the President’s Men by not even attempting to sensationalize what these journalists do. It unravels in straightforward, stoic conversations that gradually build into almost unbearable catharsis.
One of director Brian De Palma’s best movies is also one of his most conventional: Kevin Costner plays federal agent Eliot Ness, who is trying to nab Al Capone (Robert De Niro). The staircase sequence, inspired by the silent movie Battleship Potemkin, is a mini-masterpiece of suspense.
F for Fake
In the Realm of the Senses
If you watched In the Realm of the Senses without background knowledge, you might wonder what sick nutjob wrote it. But it’s based on a Japanese woman who became national myth—a Geisha in the 1930s who strangled her boss/lover in the heat of passion and then, uh, took a souvenir from his body. In the Realm of the Senses artfully abstracts that tale, unfolding in long, largely silent, and sexually explicit takes.
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde is such a singular, monumental movie in American history that it’s as famous as the couple it’s about. Which is only right: Never before had a major movie in the United States addressed criminal and sexual themes so openly and without any heavy-handed judgment. The stark, bloody climax still feels revolutionary.
Steven Spielberg clearly had a lot invested in Munich, his nearly three-hour telling of Israeli spies’ revenge against Palestinian terrorists who murdered the country’s Olympic athletes in 1972. It was sadly overlooked at the box office, but Spielberg not only brings his mastery of visuals and suspense to his political thriller, but also humanity and scope that sadly many such movies (looking at you, Argo) lack.
The serial-killer genre owes all its debts to German director Fritz Lang’s astounding 1931 movie, which draws on murders in the country around the time and a real Berlin criminal investigator. Portraying an underworld of criminals who are out to catch one of their own in murky black-and-white photography, it’s as scary and thrilling as anything released since.
A Man Escaped
The classic by director Robert Bresson is about a criminal you can root for, since he’s escaping a prison in Nazi-occupied France (it’s based on the memoirs of André Devigny). As in Bresson’s other landmark works, it’s awe-inspiring to watch how controlled the movie is while also seeming like it could be a documentary. Amazon iTunes
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper’s ’70s grindhouse classic is loosely—very loosely—based on the crimes of Ed Gein. No, Leatherface never existed, which is almost too bad, because he would have made a hell of an America’s Most Wanted episode. But Texas Chainsaw is on here because it gets its power from its faked, lo-fi sense of authenticity. It plays out like the most disturbing home video of all time, and was even promoted more or less as such, making a franchise out of the fear that there is always a monster lurking just around the corner of a country backroad.
If it’s not Martin Scorsese’s best movie (and it might well be), then Goodfellas is at least the culmination of what he’d been working toward for years: a time-jumping, ego- and testosterone-filled gangster epic portraying Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) life in the mafia. It’s a movie no one else could have made, and one every other gangster flick will be compared to in the future.
Paul Schrodt is a freelance writer and editor who also contributes to Esquire, GQ, Money, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
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