Barry Sandler sets his TV at home to “record” mode before driving to UCF to teach classes on screenwriting and film history (the current semester’s theme is horror movies). His recorder this month is locked onto Turner Classic Movies, which has been showing films from Warner Brothers nonstop in celebration of its 100th anniversary.
“These movies are truly timeless,” Sandler says. “They take everyone for a ride, no matter how old or young you are.”
To prove his point, he watches all-time great films with his students. There, in a classroom-turned-theater, the man who wrote his first screenplay more than 50 years ago laughs and winces in unison with teenagers and 20-somethings.
“We feed off each other’s energy,” Sandler says. “I’ve always been a student of moviemaking — through every genre and every era.”
And that makes him the ideal expert to rank the top 10 Warner Brothers movies of all-time during the studio’s centennial year. As interesting as his list is, just wait as we first roll through a few of Sandler’s career moments, which could be scenes from his personal biopic.
Hands-On Experience: Sandler has written 50 screenplays, with a dozen making it to the screen. One of them, Evil Never Dies, came out during his first year at UCF. “It was a made-for-TV Warner Brothers movie,” Sandler says, “but it doesn’t make my top-10 list.”
Boldest Career Move: As an undergraduate at UCLA, Sandler took the first script he ever wrote to the home of actress Raquel Welch. He had no appointment. An assistant to Welch answered the door and heard Sandler confidently say, “I wrote this for Miss Welch.” The script, about roller derby, would become one of Welch’s most notable movies, Kansas City Bomber.
Second Boldest Career Move: Sandler decided to leave southern California in 2003 to give teaching a shot. “The movie business had become exhausting,” he says. He moved across country to teach at UCF for what he expected to be a one-year stint. “I fell in love with Orlando and with teaching.” He’s finishing his 20th year at UCF.
Academy Awards: Sandler has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a voter for the Oscars since the 1970s. His picks this year? The Fabelmans (Best Picture), Brendan Fraser (Best Actor) and Ana De Armas (Best Actress).
Advice to Students: “I encourage them without sugarcoating the movie business. To survive, you have to accept rejections. The good news is there are now dozens of studios and streaming services hungry for content. When I was coming up, there were three TV networks and about seven studios.”
Warner Brothers Introduction: When he was a college student, Sandler and a friend crashed the Academy Awards. They introduced themselves to none other than Jack Warner, one of the Warner Brothers, at the Governor’s Ball. “OK boys,” Warner said, “I’m here to eat my dinner.” It was 1966, the same year Sandler’s all-time favorite Warner Brothers movie won five Oscars. Which leads us to …
1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Sandler saw this for the first time in New York City and has watched it 50 times since then. Sandler: “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton give two of the greatest performances ever. It’s a powerful theme about living with lies and deception, and eventually living an honest life. The strong language for that time made people go, ‘Whoa,’ but every word has a purpose. I can tell from the reactions of my students the power of this movie has never diminished.”
2. A Star Is Born (1954)
The storyline about the mercurial price of fame is good enough to have been made and remade five times. The 1954 version, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, is Sandler’s favorite.
Sandler: “The story has a great emotional impact every time I watch it with students. I can relate to it in a lot of ways and for them it’s a vivid glimpse at the dangers of Hollywood.”
3. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
One of the first movies to represent the counterculture era of the 1960s portrays a convict, Paul Newman, who becomes the audience’s hero.
Sandler: “I saw a prescreening in college, and it just knocked me out. We hadn’t seen a movie where a supposed rebel becomes the good guy. Today’s film students aren’t as rebellious as we were when this was released, but they still get caught up in Luke’s story and rally around him.”
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The movie was banned in several countries for graphic violence, which was rare if not gripping.
Sandler: “It’s one of the most daring, innovative movies ever. You can’t help getting swept up in this guy’s dark world. You never find yourself rooting for him because he has no conscience, but his journey is so intriguing you have to follow every step. In that way, it’s groundbreaking.”
5. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone’s version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, starring Kevin Costner, stirred up more theories around an event already steeped in questions.
Sandler: “Whether you buy into Stone’s story or not, this is a great piece of filmmaking. It grips you for more than three hours — even students who crave faster-paced entertainment. A question emerges for writers: Is your responsibility to tell the truth or to tell a good story? How much should you compromise? I’m not sure how much of JFK is truth. It’s unquestionably a good story.”
6. Goodfellas (1990)
Based on one man’s life with a mafia family, Goodfellas enters a world few had known.
Sandler: “There’s never a dull moment because Martin Scorsese builds so many interesting characters. Ray Liotta is riveting in the lead role. The movie isn’t necessarily profound in a social sense because we already had The Godfather. But students can clearly see what it means to develop a terrific screenplay.”
7. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The late 1960s were transformative years in American culture and cinema, and Bonnie and Clyde exemplified the shift.
Sandler: “This shook the senses of audiences that grew up on conservative, buckled-up movies. When Jack Warner saw the first cut, he thought it would be just another gangster movie destined for drive-ins. Warren Beatty produced and starred in it and convinced critics to give it a chance. The movie defied the system. A notorious couple became folk heroes to those who watched it.”
8. All the President’s Men (1976)
The impact of the Watergate cover-up was still reverberating when this docudrama came out, detailing how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) exposed the scandal.
Sandler: “Everyone loves a mystery, especially when it’s based on a major story that happened a couple years earlier. This reveals how Woodward and Bernstein figured out one of the biggest political scandals in American history.”
9. Giant (1956)
The movie about a ranching family in Texas earned 10 Oscar nominations, including two for best actor (Rock Hudson and James Dean). Dean died before the movie was released.
Sandler: “As a 9-year-old kid, I didn’t understand the boldness of the movie’s themes. A few years later, I did. It addresses issues like race, gender equality, and materialism at a time when movies did not go there. That’s why it still resonates today.”
10. The Exorcist (1973)
Sandler saw the first screening of The Exorcist with about 100 people on the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood.
Sandler: “I remember hearing a lot of gasps. We were there to see if the movie would deliver on the book. Well, we saw a girl with a swiveling head, spitting up green slime. It was shocking then and it’s shocking to students today. But at the core, the movie is well acted and well made. I wouldn’t include it on a top-10 list just for shock appeal.”
If this were a top-15 list:
- The Great Gatsby (2013)
- Body Heat (1981)
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
- Sweeney Todd (2007)