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The 20 Most Underrated Documentaries of All Time
Online Articles: April 2008


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Compiled and Determined by Tom White and Eddie Schmidt

Under what criteria is a film considered "underrated"? At what point does a film venture from "underrated" to "overrated"? What about those films that are simply "rated"-or, documentarily speaking, "not rated"?

These are just a few of the questions that plagued Eddie Schmidt and Tom White, two men fully aware of the filament-thin semantic intricacies of imaginary drawing lines in the artistic sand. Together, these Warriors of Nonfiction grappled for many months, sifting, poring, guzzling and quaffing through hundreds of docs that fell just short of the docu-radar, yet deserved some love in the limelight. The process was arduous, and tempers flared on many occasions. Though no longer on speaking terms--Schmidt will only communicate to White in German through Sandra Ruch; White will only communicate with Schmidt via Morse Code--the two did eventually agree on this list of the 20 Most Underrated Documentaries of all time.

Enjoy the list, and feel free to Netflix 'em!

20) Who Killed The Electric Typewriter?
Consumerist whodunit traces the unfortunate end of the Smith-Corona, the rise of something called the "computer," and the vast right-wing conspiracy to rid America of black, inky ribbon. Narrated by A Baldwin Brother.

19) Umlaut: The Story of Two Dots and Two Vowels
The fascinating true story of the unique, Germanic-based punctuation that left its indelible mark on Jäegermeister, Motley Crüe and a smattering of products at Ikea. It's Wordplay for slow learners with a fetish for Eurotrash.

18) Someone Left His Hat off in the Rain
Conspiracy buff and governmental gadfly Oliver Stone offers his six-hour meditation on US President William Henry Harrison, who served one month, then died of pneumonia.

17) Straight!
The shocking profile of four straight men--none of whom has ever touched or even fantasized about another man--and their painful struggles with the oppression of normalcy. With a haunting score by Phillip Glass and Clay Aiken.

16) The King of Krunch
A hilarious chronicle of the intense, decades-long cereal-eating wars between two charismatic and flamboyant fiber-lovers. Third-act surprises abound when odds-on favorite Joe "Franken" Berry doses rival Jim "Golden" Graham's bowl of dry Grape Nuts with peyote and Ipacek. Despite the crowd-pleasing qualities of this enjoyable film, it grossed only $376 when released in four Iowa theaters without any advertising support besides Craig's List and coupons in the Val-Pak.

15) Piece of the Pie!
Six cute, overweight children from across the country compete in a fierce, fattening battle for the National Pie Eating Contest championship. Spoiler Alert: While attempting to suck lattice crust through a straw, one little girl chokes on a piece of rhubarb 76 minutes into the film.

14) Dial of the Century: An Elegy for the Rotary Phone
Walter Winchell had one at the Stork Club. Donna Reed scampered down the stairs to answer one. JFK talked to Krushchev on one to avoid nuclear war. It's the rotary telephone, the quaint relic from the analog age, and boy, could we use it now! Featuring exclusive new and archival interviews with Ann B. Davis, Ann Landers and Ann Coulter, all of whom reflect on their love of backward-thinking nostalgia.

13) Rhymes with Punt
Scathing evisceration of the naughty and hated word that goes ten steps beyond "bitch." Featuring musical numbers by Sarah Silverman and Gloria Steinem, and a pre-emptive lawsuit by Gloria Allred.

12) Here Comes the Bride
Award-winning wedding videographer Marva Scorsese culls together her favorite cutting-room-floor scenes--cat fights at the reception line; steamy trysts in the green room; drinking binges among long-lost cousins; tearful confessions about pre-wedding-day flings; jilted brides; skittish grooms; horny uncles; irreverent reverends...It's all here!

11) Philtrum or Foe?
Fast-paced gonzo journalism strikes a winning blow for freedom of speech by tackling the curious indentation above one's upper lip and below one's nose. More enticing than Errol Morris' long-rumored Uvula, Philtrum or Foe? contains the investigative slam-dunk that the bump, when rubbed speedily by a finger, feels "kind of like the slats in an air conditioner," according to famed journalist Bob Woodward.

10) 7-11
In the spirit of Andy Warhol's Empire State Building, with a sentimental nod to Kevin Smith's Clerks, Slurpee slinger-turned-nonfiction media artist Randy Sawtooth takes the security cam footage from 24 hours in the life of the 7-11 in Bismarck, ND, and repurposes it as a 24-hour film about 24 hours in the life of the 7-11 in Bismarck, ND. This is cinema vérité at its rawest and purest. Be sure not to miss Hour Seven, when the afternoon shift comes in, exchanges pleasantries with the morning crew, and gets to work. Hour 11 includes a special guest appearance from Billy Rushmore, the star quarterback from Bismarck High School, who reaches for a package of Hostess mini chocolate donuts, then slowly changes his mind and buys a bean burrito.

9) Atheist Camp
The shocking world of secular summer camp, where "enthusiastic" counselors teach young people godless acts like knot-tying, canoeing and the demonic preparation of S'mores. Special appearance by Bill Maher, and featuring Marilyn Manson's version of the theme from Meatballs.

8) 4'33''
John Cage made musical history by sitting in total silence at a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds and deeming it music. Sienna Plainview makes cinematic history by filming absolutely nothing for the same period of time and calling it The Truth. 4'33" is not available in any format, but it must be seen to be believed.

7) Iraq around the Clock
Teenage genius Linus Schroeder takes the last 27 documentaries about the travesty in Iraq, puts their master tapes in a blender, and delivers this explosive mélange of war and misery; a "Cliff's Notes" of human suffering made palatable for easy digestion thanks to the low-cost editing of Final Cut. Featuring new music by Rage Against The Machine.

6) The Golden Burn
A stark and poignant look at the history of toast and its long hard road from spongy bread to crispy treat. The surprising third-act reveal, which lays bare the governmental conspiracy suppressing the dangers of "toastal warming," is a stunner. As is the never-before-seen footage of Winston Churchill preparing a Panini at Yalta.

5) Ken Burns' DISCO
In what he considers his final word and testament to his career-long exploration of what it means to be American, celebrated documentarian Ken Burns pours blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of soul into a 24-hour, seven-part celebration of America's most misunderstood art form: disco. Burnishing its tarnished polyester-and-cocaine image with his trademark sepia-and-solemnity treatment, Burns enlists such experts as George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Bob Costas to lend insight, passion and erudition to the likes of "Boogie Oogie Oogie," "Get Up and Boogie," "Boogie Fever," "Boogie Nights" and "I'm Your Boogie Man." Costas' tearful reminiscence of where he was when Sylvester died is worth sitting through the first 12 hours. Says Burns: "When you hear disco, you hear America's heart beating. And that's the sound of democracy in motion."

4) An Inconvenient Truth Teller
An investigative look at New Jersey's most charismatic palm reader, who happens to be located in a particularly hard-to-find enclave off of Route 9. Although the "Swami of Secaucus" correctly foretells the presidency of Jimmy Carter two years after his election, her entire soothsaying career is thrown into a tailspin when she erroneously predicts that this documentary will gross over $1 million at the box office.

3) How To Win an Award
HIV-positive Native American Holocaust surviving Jew with harelip Russell Raingold lights his genitals on fire to protest cruelty to animals in Darfur. After the final shot, we learn that our hero died from anorexia just after completion of the film, as recounted by actor and activist Nicole Kidman. Despite early accolades, this doc is ultimately done in by the sheer, off-putting arrogance of its title.

Unfortunately, we cannot disclose the titles of the #2 and #1 Most Underrated Documentaries of all time because, after further review and discussion, Schmidt and White determined that these films were actually overrated and therefore had to be disqualified.

Eddie Schmidt is. Tom White is not.


Disclaimer: These titles sprang from the fevered and fetid imaginations of Tom White and Eddie Schmidt. Any resemblance to any existing title or project is purely a freak accident. Besides, what day is today?