There are various ways in which the found footage genre uses the camera to tell the story. Some let the camera do all the work while others provide interviews, commentary, and other narrative features. The former consists of films like Blair Witch Project and the latter includes Cannibal Holocaust. Judging by box office numbers, those who follow the Blair Witch path turn into money making machines while the others find trouble ensuring a theatrical release. The sub-genre continues to grow with both critically acclaimed and box office hits. Usually, but not always, found-footage films are a sub-section of the horror genre, and so last October I posted a list of my favourite found footage horror films. But with the release of Chronicle this weekend, I’ve decided to put together a list of some of my other personal favourites. These films range from Sci-Fi monster movies to French art-house crime flicks, but much like their horror counterparts, they each place the viewer in the centre of the action, with the cameraman as one of the principle characters in the film in an attempt to simulate reality by directly implying that the movie has been “discovered” somewhere and then distributed to audiences.
Note: I’ve decided to not list any moc-doc style films, and keep it to full out found footage flicks. I’ll be making a list of my favorite moc-docs soon.
Directed by Andre Øvredal
Trollhunter works on a number of levels: fairytale, fantasy, supernatural adventure, political satire, workplace comedy, but the most immediately satisfying characteristic is Ovredal’s take on Scandinavian legends. Ovredal introduces various troll subspecies such as the Tosserlad, the Ringlefinch, the Jotnar. One of the many clever and engaging aspects of the film is Ovredal’s take on the classic ideas of the supernatural rule book. The film’s model appears to be akin to Cloverfield only with a much lower budget and rough CGI. Still, the production values are impressive with wonderful troll design work by Håvard S. Johansen and Ivar Rødningen. As with The Blair Witch, Ovredal shoots his creatures vérité-style, using a fair amount of jittery camera work, night vision photography, point of view shots, characters breaking the fourth wall and in once scene, even continuing to shoot with a cracked lens. But unlike Blair Witch, which offered up various scares by keeping everything hidden and off-screen, Trollhunter exposes its elusive prey in full early on.
C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog) (1992)
Directed by André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
In the tradition of all desperate filmmakers who can’t afford much film stock, the trio of Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde set out to make the cheapest movie possible. Intended as a calling card, Man Bites Dog would spoof documentaries by taking a fictitious serial killer around as he exercises his craft. He expounds on art, music, nature, society, and life as he offs mailmen, pensioners, and random people. Every frame of this film is shot documentary-style in grainy black-and-white. This pseudo-realism, complete with rough uneven editing and shaky hand-held camera work, gives a frightening air of legitimacy to it’s a deeply compelling indictment of screen violence as entertainment – a critique of our crime-saturated media and violence-dominated life that we’ve seen time and time again, but not quite like this.
Directed by Matt Reeves
This lean, mean monster movie at only 84-minutes, and offers a fresh spin on the genre. Employing a pseudo-documentary handheld camera style, director Matt Reeves creates a remarkable and economical approach to show widespread panic in Manhattan, by blending computer-generated and real footage, and limiting our perspective to just what Hud sees through his viewfinder. Even if it’s gimmicky filmmaking, it still makes for a surprisingly gripping thriller. Think The Blair Witch Project crossed with Godzilla. Cloverfield is alarming and nothing short of terrifying – a a milestone in contemporary filmmaking.
Directed by Josh Frank
First time director Josh Trank’s best asset is also his greatest challenge: The first-person narrative style, once viewed as a gimmicky variant for low-budget productions, wrestles with the logic of having characters constantly filming events with good reason. While the found footage approach has become an increasingly popular conceit, it can at times feel awkward and artificial. Yet with Chronicle, the seemingly low-tech approach makes the teens and their powers all the more believable and invests us in the characters with a surprising economy of screen time. Despite the limitations, Chronicle gains in intimacy and immediacy like no previous superhero movie has achieved.
Chronicle will never be mistaken for an artistic breakthrough, but it is unquestionably endowed with the best special effects this low-budget shaky-cam movie could afford. The effects here (handled by Simon Hansen, second unit director on District 9) are terrific – both seamless and as realistic as can be. Most notable is the climax revolving around Seattle’s Space Needle, a remarkably economical urban view of widespread panic obviously done on a small budget yet rivalling that of any superhero movie of 2011. Shot for a reported $15 million, director Trank wisely strips down the pic – the compositions are visually clutter free, the shots usually static or steady – and the result is pure movie magic.