Oscar Wilde wrote “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” And fine, maybe in 1889 that was the case, but in the years since, the true crime genre has exploded. The onslaught of related podcasts and (even moreso) Netflix docuseries will leave you with nightmares, however. So if you need a little documentary distance while still chasing the natural intrigue that comes from knowing a shocking tale actually happened, a dramatized, based-on-true-events movie can lend some emotional space to a true story.
From the lives of notorious serial killers, to the ever expanding American gangster genre, to JLo’s flawless 2019 portrayal of a scammer/stripper hybrid, take those news stories up a notch and check out the dramatic retellings with one of the following 40 titles. These are the best true crime movies of all time.
My Friend Dahmer is a biographical drama that covers the adolescence of Jeffrey Dahmer: a shy, strange boy who grew up to become one of America’s most infamous serial killers. Ross Lynch plays the young killer in this 2017 adaptation of the graphic novel by Alex Backderf, who graduated high school alongside Dahmer.
Molly’s Game, based on her memoir of the same name, is the true story of Molly Bloom, a young American skier who ran the most exclusive high-stakes poker game in the world for a decade with players that included actors, athletes, moguls, and the Russian mob. She was arrested in the middle of the night by more than 17 FBI agents in 2013 when she was 34.
JLo, Constance Wu, and Lili Reinhart (among other icons, including Cardi B) helm Hustlers, a 2019 film based on a viral (and true) New York magazine article about Manhattan strippers who, during the 2008 economic collapse, plot to swindle rich Wall Street clients out of huge sums of money.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Zac Efron takes on the role of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy in the 2019 Netflix film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film chronicles his crimes from the perspective of his girlfriend, who was in denial about her partner’s dark side for years.
Martin Scorcese’s (extremely) full-length Netflix film The Irishman follows truck driver Frank Sheeran as he gets involved and deeply embedded in organized crime in the 1950s. The epic crime tale is based on 2004 nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s not Steven Spielberg’s best, but Catch Me If You Can ranks among the director’s more entertaining movies. It tracks Frank Abagnale’s rise as a wunderkind conman. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been more enjoyably charming and slimy.