Documentaries are among the most valuable, neglected cultural arts of our time. Most people can agree on the greatness of some big name documentaries like "Man on Wire," "Winged Migration" and "Super Size Me." However, sadly thousands of brilliant documentaries are created with few eyes to ever view them. This is a list of lesser known, profoundly compelling, must-see documentaries that not only inform but truly entertain. The most difficult part is having to reduce it to only ten.
How's Your News? 
Truly one of the strangest documentaries ever produced (by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and others). Imagine people who have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to spastic cerebral palsy. Now picture those people as news gatherers/reporters with a "man on the street" approach. At first you may think it's just exploiting them for trite humor, but it's not. The interactions range from hysterical to confusing, but they are always honest. The humanity is undeniable.
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story 
Song-poem refers to song lyrics that have been set to music for a fee, and has been going on for a hundred years. "Record companies" place ads in the back of various magazines in which they claim to be looking for new, fresh material. So novice writers (often rudimentary) pay these people (the composers) to put their lyrics to music. Hundreds of thousands of songs have been recorded and released through the song-poem business, only a tiny handful, "Jimmy Carter Says 'Yes'" is probably the biggest, have reached any sort of audience beyond the lyricist himself. This PBS documentary delves into this curious business and really tries to understand what motivates both the aspiring writer and the paid composer.
Jesus Camp 
Kids on Fire is a summer camp for evangelical Christian children in North Dakota created by pastor Becky Fischer. The kids are usually home-schooled and when they get to camp they explode with passionate prayer and some speak in tongues. Among other agendas, Becky encourages them to participate in political action for President Bush's various policies. At times it is difficult to watch - you really feel for these kids - but it is real and at the end of the day you are happy you have had an insight into this disconcerting world.
The Cruise 
Timothy "Speed" Levitch is a New York City double-decker tour bus guide who has a (mostly) love and (sometimes) hate relationship with the city. He dispenses architectural analysis, historical facts, and philosophical musings in equal measures. This black and white documentary chronicles his diatribes and quotes, and offers his opinions as eloquent as the writers/poets he refers to on his tours.
The Up Series [1964-present]
This is not one film, but a series of British documentaries that have followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were 7 years old. Every seven years they have made a new film spanning 49 years. The children were selected to represent a range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the assumption that each child's social class predetermines their future.
Throughout the years some people wish not to be filmed, but then do the next 7 or 14 years. Not only is this series insightful to the viewer, but even more so to the participants. You see each of them grow in profound ways and how they reflect on their own growth. It seems unnatural to watch a persons entire life unfold in front of you, but it is truly an important cultural sociological experiment that will be appreciated for centuries.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 
By far, the most in-depth look into original arcade games and the fascinating people that play them.
In the early 1980s, legendary Billy Mitchell set a Donkey Kong record that stood for almost 25 years. This documentary follows the assault on the record by Steve Wiebe, an earnest teacher from Washington who took up the game while unemployed. The top scores are monitored by an eccentric group of players and fans associated with Walter Day, an Iowan who runs Funspot Arcade. It's truly incredible to witness this game-playing world that everyone takes very, very seriously.
Okie Noodling 
Catching a monster catfish with nothing other than your bare hands has been happening for centuries. This documentary explores the bizarre culture in the lakes and rivers of Oklahoma that love and embrace it. The process of shoving your hand down the fish's mouth in order to get a hold of it is captivating. Though it is far from the most profound documentary, "Okie Noodling" offers an unusual look at a slice of American Midwest life. A little bonus that adds to the surrealism of this film is that the rock band The Flaming Lips are responsible for the musical score.
Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary 
The setting is a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas in 1995. A competition pits 24 contestants against each other to see who can keep their hand on a pickup truck for the longest amount of time. A five-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours are given. The last person standing wins that beautiful Nissan hard body pickup truck.
It is a true endurance test in all sense of the word; you watch these people break down physically and mentally. You watch them resort to cheating, name calling and other unsavory behavior, all in an effort to win.
If you can only see one documentary from this whole list, I heavily recommend you watch this one. The words I write to describe it will not come close to the exhilaration you will feel after you watch these real life characters unravel.
I Think We're Alone Now 
A film about obsessed fans would not normally be on this list. However, when you watch this documentary you will immediately know why it made it. The two fans: Jeff Turner, a 50-year-old man with Asperger's syndrome from Santa Cruz, California; and Kelly McCormick, a 38-year-old hermaphrodite from Denver, Colorado. The celebrity they are obsessed with and claim to be in love with is 80's pop singer Tiffany. This film will take you on a comedic and emotional roller coaster ride stranger than you can ever imagine, but you won't want to get off.
Next: Twin Movies
Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz Is a medical doctor who started out with two failed marriages and a conventional existence. When he found his third wife Juliette, everything changed. The two spirits emerged as a life-loving team with the most unconventional path seldom taken.
The couple lived a frugal yet healthy life in a series of low budget trailers along the California coast. As one child after the other cropped up over the next decade, they toured the country winning surf competitions. Doc would take low-to-no paying medical jobs helping the poor. Though this seemed like an ideal lifestyle, he was a severe disciplinarian who denied his children education and financial security. He also engaged in loud sex with his wife a few feet away from the children in their small space. When the children grew up and left, they found it extremely difficult to survive and function without the social skills and education that most conventional upbringing has.
Although it is a heartbreaking story at times, it is a fascinating look into a truly unique life and arc that few will ever see. Oh, and a fun fact is that Doc is responsible for single-handedly teaching the country of Israel how to surf. Watch the film and you'll learn so much more.