A Cinematic Guide to True Crime

True crime has been a thriving genre across a myriad of mediums in the last few years: podcasts, TV series, fictionalised sexy retellings. So it seems like time that we took a look at the original true crime staple: the documentary movie. There’s a lot of great stuff out there (and a lot of really nasty, exploitative shit, too, but I digress Joe Berlinger), but we here at No But Listen are always keen to inject our own hot takes into any genre reccomendations. So, without further ado – our guide to the best true crime cinema has to offer. To the list!

  1. The Imposter

When Bart Layton decided to pursue the story of Frederic Bourdin, an identity thief who tried to insert himself into the lives of the Barclay family by impersonating their missing son Nicholas, he already knew he had a hell of a story. But just what a hell of a story he had was yet to be revealed. The Imposter is an outrageously compelling, intricately constructed story, practically redefining the term “twisty-turny” as the dark story comes to pass. Layton would follow up this insta-classic with the more avant-garde but equally brilliant American Animals, but this remains his most iconic and enduring work – and by the time the credits roll, it’s impossible to forget why.

2. The Thin Blue Line

True crime as a genre has been studded through in recent years with wrongful convictions and those claiming they’ve been the victims of one – Adnan Syed, Steven Avery, Michael Peterson, to name but a few. But this 1988 Errol Morris documentary, following the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams, is the OG of that genre for obvious reasons: they actually succeeded in getting their subject off. Infuriating, fascinating, and vital, The Thin Blue Line is one of the all-time most revered true crime docs, and, even now, stands out as one of the most powerful and important entries to the genre ever.

3. Tower

True crime, as I have written about myself, comes with the natural and uncomfortable acceptance that we’re going to be giving at least a good chunk of our time to people who have done awful things. But Keith Maitland’s 2016 Tower manages to sidestep that issue with his strikingly original and totally brilliant Tower, which retells the story of the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas via archival footage and stunning rotoscoping animation. Unapologetically focused on the experiences of the victims and choosing to leave perpetrator Charles Whitman completely out of proceedings (not even mentioning him by name), Tower is as much a film about trauma, grief, and guilt as it is about recounting this bleak chapter of American history. At time uncomfortably intimate but always utterly human, this isn’t so much a whodunnit as a and what happens next?

What are your standout true crime movies? Are there any that you think don’t deserve their place in the pantheon? Let us know in the comments below! You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol.

By Louise MacGregor

(header image via PBS)

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