Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's searing take on the theme park's mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in "Blackfish," Cowperthwaite's case against SeaWorld would change little with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. "Blackfish" is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system.
Cowperthwaite's framing device is the February 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was ripped to shreds by the notorious Tilikum, a whale responsible for two other deaths along with other human injuries since getting captured in the early 1980s. However, "Blackfish" tracks countless other incidents across several decades of orca whale training, all of which coalesce into a stinging assertion that SeaWorld both relies on animal abuse and carelessly puts its employees in constant danger.
Because it involves the abuse of intelligent sea animals, the easiest point of comparison in the documentary arena is the dolphin slaughter documentary "The Cove," but a more relevant precedent of recent memory is "Project Nim," where an ill-fated attempt to domesticate chimps leads to the realization that you can't tame nature. "Blackfish" hails from that same school of thought, making the unsettling case that SeaWorld's live acts of entertainment are in fact a expensively veiled form of torture.
6. "The Last of the Unjust"
Claude Lanzmann's sprawling 1985 documentary "Shoah" deserves its slot as the definitive non-fiction Holocaust movie, but even its eight-hour running time can't fully encompass the director's years of research. Lanzmann spent a decade gathering interviews exploring virtually every angle of that tumultuous period, wisely relying on first-hand testimonies and the haunting quality of contemporary locations where the genocide took place to give his chronicle weight. With "The Last of the Unjust," he proves the approach maintains its gripping power. Now in his late eighties, Lanzmann continues to unload the footage he gathered during his initial production. In 2011, a half-hour interview with concentration camp whistleblower Jan Karski aired on French television as "The Karski Report," but that was little more than a slim profile compared to Lanzmann's current achievement. "The Last of the Unjust," a 218-minute look at the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt and one of the Jewish men tasked with running it, magnifies a previously underexplored tale of persecution with incredible dexterity. By unearthing a series of interviews conducted in 1975 with the elderly Benjamin Murmelstein, the only survivor of the so-called "Elder of the Jews" in charge of the ghetto, Lanzmann resurrects the aesthetics of "Shoah" while extending its narrative into a new chapter.
5. "First Cousin Once Removed"
Documentarian Alan Berliner is frequently the focus of his movies, but his aim extends beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show, he's a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence that could result from putting himself in front of the camera. That tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring "First Cousin Once Removed," which deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships ("Nobody's Business") and insomnia ("Wide Awake") by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest the movie's central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic relevant to everyone.
His case study is Edwin Honig, the first cousin of Berliner's mother, a bond that gives the movie its title. But there's more about Honig -- once a world-class poet and founder of Brown University's creative writing program -- that has been removed beyond his relationship to the filmmaker. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease before the movie begins, Honig has lost grasp of his identity or any firm understanding of his relationships to those around him. Still haunted from his own father's death from the disease, Berliner sets out to understand the nature of Honig's increasing frailty by working to unlock the older man's dwindling memories.
Just as Berliner's father overtook "Nobody's Business" with his wisecracking responses to the filmmaker's questions, Honig eventually subsumes the perspective of "First Cousin Once Removed," and Berliner allows his elder's crumbling subjectivity to dominate. A final credit chillingly tests the audience's own mental capacity, broadening the movie's perspective so that nobody can escape its clutches without contemplating the cold fate that awaits us all. It's the biggest idea Berliner has engaged to date -- and for the same reason, it's also his crowning achievement.