Especially among horror films numerous examples of found footage films can be found, meaning films that depict a virtually real, not staged, situation first hand, and are virtually rediscovered after some phase of disappearance.
The aspect of rediscovery - footage being "lost" and "found" - is not necessarily a characteristic feature of the genre. Much more characteristic is it the visual style, using first person perspective and shaky camera to create the illusion of actual raw footage shot on location. For example in "Diary of the Dead" (2007, see below) the footage is never getting lost, but quite on the contrary is meant to be seen, and published on the internet.
In addition to the successful and well known smash hits like "Blairwitch Project", "Paranormal Activity" (2007), "Cloverfield" (2008) and the uber-classic "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980, see below) there's a multitude of similar films, a couple of which are well worth seeing.
An article by popMATTERS (see "Additional sources" below) lists and rates ten well-made found footage films, among which are a few lesser known. Interestingly the nuclear holocaust shocker "The War Game" (1965, see below) was put on the list - strictly speaking not a found footage film, but a documentary, and generally somehow difficult to classify, but nontheless a outstanding contribution to the subject.
In a wider sense the "found footage" is of course a "documentary". As such, the TV news broadcast sections from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) would be among the earliest examples, as is the footage in "The War Game". With it's first-person-perspective camera work, "Peeping Tom" (1960) is also one of the precursors of the genre.
Also some mockumentaries could be classified as "found footage", but in common use the term is mostly limited to horror films.
So far the theory - without further ado, here's the selection of...
The best found footage films of all time
Noroi - The Curse (2005)
On first sight "Noroi" is an Asian found footage like many others - only after some time of watching it starts to dawn on the beholder: this goes much deeper than shaky camera and jump scares. "Noroi" is much more sophisticated than dark corridors and creaking doors, "Noroi" is not the lonely mansion at night, "Noroi" is the fear of what one cannot comprehend, in darkness as in broad daylight, you can see it, and it can see you, but you don't know what it is...
The War Game (1965)
A surprising, highly interesting and deeply moving entry on popMATTERS's list of great found footage films. Strictly speaking, "The War Game" isn't found footage - but is bone crushing realistic. A BBC TV production (although never broadcast, but shown in theatres) only possible in the UK, together with "Threads" (1984) a duo of educational films par excellence. Essential viewing, absolute recommendation.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
George A. Romero's criminally underrated fifth zombie movie goes one step further: from the "I" to the "us", from the single shaky smartphone camera to the focused film project of generation YouTube, from single spectator to social media community. The big strenghts of Romero's films are less in the obvious storyline or the characters, but much more in the big picture, in the causes and implications of human behaviour. "Diary of the Dead" leaves the usual necessity of individual characters of a movie plot almost completely behind, and poses a new question: which role plays the internet, the sum of all our truths, in a collapsing society?
"Diary of the Dead" has been almost ignored by the zombie movie audience when it was first released - but it will eventually be recognized as a milestone.
REC und REC2 (2007, 2009)
The two equally outstanding REC and REC2 zombie films - found footage horror to perfection, from Spain, full of ideas, tough as nails, maximally realistic.
Cannibal Holocaust ("Nackt und zerfleischt", 1980)
Ruggero Deodato's classic must not miss from any list of horror and found footage films, and rightfully so - "Cannibal Holocaust" is more or less the embodiment and father of the genre.
Flawless and highly questionable at the same time regarding content, gross and cynical in form, and with a groundbreaking marketing campaign. Far beyond any good taste, yet not irrelevant, "Cannibal Holocaust" is the standard all other movies have to measure against when it comes to found footage horror cinema.
Les Documents interdits ("Verbotene Aufnahmen", 1989)
"The Forbidden Files", created far off of any contemporary trends, are a mostly unknown specimen of found footage film. 13 episodes of the arte production present unexplained going-ons, apparently shot by amateurs on location, with sober commentary, devoid of further narrative context. "The Forbidden Files" were created with what from today's standpoint is real retro/vintage equipment, and thus can do without fake analog video or Super8 effects. Beautifully low-key both in style and in content - and thereby even more effective. Gentle scares to stimulate your thoughts.
https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Documents_interdits (french, with individual episodes)
Project X (2012)
Party hard, center crowd, in the age of facebook. Like few other films "Project X" creates a sense of being there, by cleverly blending virtually authentic footage from different sources.
One of the few non-horror found footage films, "Project X" is the successful attempt at applying the format to other genres than the usual aliens, ghosts, and zombies - and the effect is notable: the apparent realism doesn't work because of the room for interpretation given by fantasy and mystery content, but quite the opposite: it's the ever-present nature of today's smartphones and the trivial premise of a party being held that makes the audience easily suspend all disbelief.
C'est arrivé près de chez vous ("Mann beisst Hund", 1992)
"Man bites dog" was an insiders' tip after it was released in 1992, a small, dirty, mean shocker that gets only recommended by real cineasts or videostore geeks. Just two years later Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994) picked up a similar subject in a major studio production. In 1994/1995 the O.J. Simpson case was widely broadcast on television and a hit with the audience. Reality-TV exploded and became world wide phenomenon. "Man bites dog" and "Natural Born Killers" were ahead of their time, disturbingly anticipating the evolution of Reality-TV and social media sharing to come. Only in hindsight the huge significance of these movies becomes clear.
Watch the movies' trailers on our YouTube channel:
More found footage movie recommendations:
My Little Eye (2002)
The Last Horror Movie (2003)
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Lake Mungo (2008)
The Last Exorcism (2010)
The Sacrament (2013)
Blair Witch (2016)
"The 10 Best 'Found Footage' Films of All Time", Bill Gibron, 08 Sep 2011
"Jean-Teddy Filippe's 'Forbidden Files': Found Footage Lost (and Found Again)", Kit MacFarlane, 06 Oct 2011
Top 10 Found Footage Movies", WatchMojo.com