Hello, readers! With the found footage film Unfriended opening this weekend, I’m counting down the ten very best found footage movies ever.
Of course, by now we’ve been bombarded with so many lousy found footage movies over the past five or so years, that the genre as a whole is often met with either an eye roll or a groan. From the studio’s perspective, it’s understandable why they keep churning them out – they cost pennies to the dollar to make, and it rakes in millions from the moviegoers. Honestly, as long as the crappy ones keep making money, we’re gonna keep getting them. That’s just Business 101 there.
Yet for all the crappy ones that have tarnished the genre, there are still some that have stood above the rest as examples of how to do the genre right, and I’m here to shine a spotlight on the ten best that have done just that.
Also, keep in mind, I’m not restricting this to just horror, but am opening it up to found footage films of any genre.
So here we go, starting with…
10) The Bay
2012 – You typically don’t associate found footage films with experienced filmmakers, let alone Oscar winning ones, but Barry Levinson – the man who gave us Diner, The Natural, Tin Men, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rain Man among others – tackles the cost-effective genre like the seasoned pro that he is. An effectively chilling 4th of July tale of creepy crawly parasites terrorizing the Chesapeake locals, The Bay is sure to make you think twice before taking a sip of the tap water you just poured yourself. After following up his 1997 hit Wag the Dog with a 14-year long streak of mediocre stinkers, with the overlooked What Just Happened being the only good film during that time, you can understand why Levinson would wanna shake up his career. It always comes at a risk, particularly with a genre that by 2012 was beginning to wear out its welcome. But Levinson’s experience and skill work wonders here, creating an unnerving eco-horror story that focuses on public paranoia and the devastating effects of the infestation more so than cheap monster thrills.
2008 – It only took an extremely cryptic teaser to pique moviegoers’ curiosity in the Matt Reeves directed/J. J. Abrams produced sci-fi hit. Featuring a talented young cast that includes Lizzy Caplan, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas and Michael Stahl-David, Cloverfield works not only as a found footage film, but also as a large-scale, Godzilla-esque monster flick. Sure, backlash ensued as many viewers felt ripped off by Reeves’s teasing of the alien monster, but the film stays true to its format by sticking with its main characters, through the perspective of the greatest wear and tear proof camera Rob could ever own, as they frantically try to escape the destruction of New York City. Plus, how can you not be wowed by seeing Lady Liberty’s head get tossed like a softball through the street?
8) Cannibal Holocaust
1980 – It’s no contest when I say out of the ten, Cannibal Holocaust is by far the most controversial film on this list. How fitting for a film that’s considered the first of the found footage genre. Centering on a NYU anthropologist led rescue mission of a missing documentary crew in the Amazon, the crew’s lost footage is discovered and what’s been captured on film is – well, how shall I say… shocking. So how notorious is this film? Let me count the ways: Live animal slaughters are shown (in this film’s defense, people bash it for the slaughters, but it’s hardly the first film to do so, or even the most popular – Apocalypse Now – for that matter). Due to the film’s extreme graphic nature, it was banned in several countries, many of which are still in place today. No moment of notoriety, though, could match director Ruggero Deodato’s arrest following the film’s Italian premiere, where he’d be charged with obscenity and soon after murder (he was later cleared of the charges after bringing in the actors he allegedly murdered in court to prove they were still alive). Underneath all the brutality, however, runs a commentary on media exploitation, sensationalism and the vast divide between modern and primitive cultures. Commentary or not, it should go without saying that this isn’t for the faint of heart, but what the hell, I’ll reiterate it anyway: THIS IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.
2007 – Spanish film [REC] might be better recognized by American audiences as the lame U.S. version known as Quarantine, which came a year after this film’s release. What begins as just another routine night for TV reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso), documenting the night shift of a Barcelona fire station for the series While You’re Sleeping, turns into a virus-plagued nightmare once they’re called out to an apartment building that’s put on quarantine lock down. Directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza put their viewers smack dab in the middle of a heart-pounding descent into a funhouse from hell, dispensing moments of much-needed comic relief to give them a breather. Once [REC] gets going, though, it never takes its foot off the gas, going for the jugular at every possible moment.
6) Zero Day
2003 – The most overlooked film on this list, Zero Day explores the mindsets of those behind a massacre similar to Columbine, which took place four years prior to this film. Though deviating from the format just a bit near the end, the film is, for the most part, seen through the eyes of Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson), the two troubled high school kids who plan the school shooting. The performances by Keuck and Robertson are compelling, drawing us into their personal lives which may not be as troubling as you might think. Don’t misconstrue the touches of humanity given to the characters as director Ben Coccio’s way of condoning or excusing the two’s heinous final act. He doesn’t by any means; it’s his way of complicating what many wish were a clear-cut and easy answer as to what could possibly cause someone who seems to have much potential to do something so vile. While not an easy film to watch given the subject matter, Zero Day’s rawness and authenticity still make it an unforgettable experience.
5) Paranormal Activity
2009 – It’s amazing what you can do with only one house, one camcorder and two actors if you just put your mind to it. Critics and audiences alike saw this film as the revitalization of the found footage genre that gave way to sequel after prequel after sequel after spinoff after sequel (yep… come this October!), as well as a mass number of other cheap knockoffs. Still, regardless of the less-than-stellar (to put it nicely), money-making sequels that followed, Paranormal Activity holds up on its own as a great example of low-budget filmmaking done right. Between writer/director Oren Peli’s craftiness and two natural, mostly improvised performances from Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, this is proof you don’t need the scary effects or the blood and gore to make a creepy film. And, for those that read yesterday’s review of the film, yes, pranking my sister after seeing the film was totally worth it.
2012 – Like Cloverfield, Chronicle not only works as a found footage film, it also works as a sci-fi superhero film, but with a twist: This time around, we get to witness the origin of a supervillain with Dane DeHaan’s Andrew Detmer. What begins as teens doing exactly what teens would do if given supernatural abilities eventually turns darker as the more advanced they become with their powers, the more they discover the corrupting influence it has on them. Director Josh Trank whips out some nifty camera tricks within the format, but what holds our undivided attention from beginning to end are the three well-drawn characters and the terrific performances behind them, in particular two star-making turns from Michael B. Jordan and scene-stealer Dane DeHaan.
3) Man Bites Dog
1993 – Prior to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Belgian filmmakers Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde put together their own satirical take on glamorized violence and the media with Man Bites Dog, which follows a crew of documentary filmmakers who are recording the crimes committed by Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde), the art-loving, philosophizing, charismatic and definitely unpredictable serial killer they’re following. The crew starts out as simply observers, but gradually, they find themselves assisting in Ben’s despicable deeds more and more. Understandably, some will find the dark and irreverent humor off-putting, but the skewering of society’s fascination with violence is spot-on and bonus points are given for it having the balls to commit some taboos that Hollywood’s too scared to do.
2) End of Watch
2012 – After writing Training Day and Dark Blue, filmmaker David Ayer turned to directing. His debut and sophomore efforts proved a rough start for him with the stinkers Harsh Times and Street Kings, but third time’s more than a charm with End of Watch, his best film to date. Now, just like with Barry Levinson back at the #10 spot, you also don’t associate the found footage genre with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, two acclaimed actors seen here in the prime of their careers, but this film would’ve worked with or without the gimmick thanks to the brilliant chemistry between its two lead actors. Obviously, Ayer’s no stranger to the police drama, but this time there’s no seedy corruption or propaganda going on, with Ayer delivering a more honest look at the everyday life of the average police officer from the mundane paperwork to the dangerous, ofttimes life-threatening encounters with criminals to the brotherly bond between these two men in blue. Directed with great passion by Ayer and anchored by two extraordinary performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena, End of Watch is not only one of the best found footage films, it’s one of the best crime dramas of the past decade.
And here we are at #1. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not The Devil Inside. It is…
1) The Blair Witch Project
1999 – Yeah, it’s a bit of a predictable choice, but while not the first found footage film, The Blair Witch Project is what made the found footage format into a marketable genre. The marketing for this film was so convincing when it was first released, many viewers believed they were watching the actual footage of three ill-fated students gone missing in the woods. No, it’s not “scary”, but what directors Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez do so well here is create an atmosphere of madness, leaving us just as much in the dark as their three main characters are about whoever or whatever is out there stalking them in the woods. The all-around efforts put forth in making this look like a legit documentary can’t go unnoticed, but it’s the three incredibly raw, improvised performances from Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard (all three were harassed by the directors and deprived of food at night) that give the film its most authentic touch.
Well, there you have it, readers! Feel free to comment down below on what some of your favorite found footage films are. And believe me when I say, in all sincerity, that Apollo 18 and Devil’s Due were soooo close to making the cut.