The point of watching a movie or television series is to escape from the realities of everyday life. While most find this is best achieved by watching scripted content, there’s just as many (if not more) unbelievable tales being told around the world through documentaries. Many of these tales involve a criminal element, as is the case with many of the original documentaries on Netflix (Tiger King being their latest example), or any of the major streamers for that matter.
Some of the seemingly-tall tales captured in this way have even inspired feature films based on the exploits of their subjects. There’s no doubt that the following films and series will end up getting the same treatment down the road because if they prove anything, it’s that reality is at many times stranger than any made-up story we can hope to tell.
Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2016 Academy Awards, Cartel Land is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and tells the intensely-unbelievable true story of two vigilante groups fighting the drug cartels on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. One group, located in the heart of Michoacán, Mexico, is led by Dr. Jose Mireles, whom the town’s other residents refer to simply as “El Doctor.” Known as the Autodefensas, the group of locals fights to keep control of their city from the Knights Templar cartel, which has reigned chaos upon their lives for years since setting up a permanent operation in their once-peaceful town.
On the other side of the border, a paramilitary group patrols a 52-mile stretch of desert in southern Arizona known as Altar Valley (or as they call it in the film, Cocaine Valley) to staunch the flow of drug cartel activity in the area. Led by veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley, the group, known as Arizona Border Recon, takes a much different approach to stopping the cartels than the Autodefensas, but that’s the point. Cartel Land is brilliant because it shows the viewer how these cartels have impacted specific lives on both sides of our country’s shared border, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’re missing out on one of the most eye-opening documentaries of the 2010s.
Perhaps one of the most riveting true crime documentary series of all time, the HBO original The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst tells the story of Robert Durst, the once-reclusive real estate heir, who was a suspect in a string of incidents in 1982, including the disappearance of his then-wife Kathleen McCormack, as well as the murders of family friend Susan Berman and neighbor Morris Black. Throughout six episodes, you’ll find yourself questioning the motives of not only Durst himself, but also the filmmakers themselves.
The Jinx provides exclusive access to tons of unseen documents and interviews pertaining to these criminal cases, including a newly-filmed interview between the director, Andrew Jarecki, and Durst himself. How was Jarecki able to snag an interview with the subject of a murder investigation? It just so happens Jarecki also helmed the thinly-veiled 2010 Robert Durst pseudo-biopic All Good Things, which starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst as analogs to Durst and his wife Kathleen, respectively. Durst was said to have visited the set of the film, and this is where the two men are said to have built a rapport. This unique interviewer-subject dynamic makes this series worth the watch all on its own, but the near-constant twists and turns in the central mysteries are sure to please, as well.
When long-lost identical brothers Robert Shafran and Eddy Galland coincidentally met after attending the same college one year apart, they thought it was strange they had never been in contact, nor even heard about the other’s existence. With both at 19 years old, this came as quite a shock to them. When the unique story reached their other (final) long-lost brother David Kellman, the newly-reunited triplets (as well as their rightfully-outraged adopted families) had one question on their minds: what happened? That’s one of the many questions that Three Identical Strangers (available on Hulu) attempts to answer, and it does so with resounding success.
Director Tim Wardle handles this delicate tale with unspeakable tact, navigating the dark underworlds of child adoption under Louise Wise, the agency which handled the adoption of the triplets in question. It also examines the disturbingly real effects of large-scale media attention, especially on those who aren’t mentally well-equipped enough to deal with such close scrutiny. Simply put, this Sundance documentary darling is one of the most intense emotional rollercoasters of the entire genre.
Disney+ is home to one of the best streaming catalogs ever assembled (pun intended), but many subscribers neglect one of its most key departments: documentaries. Most of the documentaries on Disney+ are supplied by their National Geographic section, and perhaps the best of these documentaries is last year’s Best Documentary Oscar Winner, Free Solo. The documentary tells the true story of Alex Honnold and his attempt to “free solo” climb the famous El Capitan cliff face. To “free solo” basically means to climb without any safety harnesses attaching you to the surface you’re climbing. Using his hands, some chalk, and enough finger strength to lift his entire body, Honnold may just be able to conquer this truly Herculean task, but you’ll only get the true answer if you watch the film.
Directed (and partially shot) by Jimmy Chin, Free Solo contains some of the most death-defying, high-flying, harrowing, anxiety-inducing footage perhaps ever captured on film. The footage of El Capitan, specifically, is great not only in terms of cinematic beauty but also in terms of technical ingenuity. To capture footage of Honnold’s final climb, Chin and his crew wore rigs and worked cameras while they were dangling off the surface of one of the sheerest cliffs on the entire continent. It’s truly jaw-dropping, and it’s part of what makes Free Solo a film everyone should see, regardless of whether or not you enjoy stories of incredible athleticism and death-defying bravery.
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These documentaries tell stories that are at many times unbelievable, but nevertheless actually happened.