(Photo by Warner Brothers, Netflix, Columbia Pictures Corporation)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Angelica Jade Bastién is known for her sharp, incisive takes. Her analyses consistently take into account not just the movie or series at hand, but the overall state of the industry. Her reviews hinge upon how specific business decisions – from casting with Judas and the Black Messiah to release strategies with Wonder Woman: 1984 – interweave with and work alongside plot, performances, and visual style to inform the final product audiences see.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Bastién discussed the varying misconceptions about critics – both from an industry and an audience perspective: “Part of the problem with how audiences see critics as worthless and don’t understand the point of them is linked to the state of modern criticism,” Bastién said. “A lot of critics confuse their job for being PR. It’s not – we don’t work for these studios.”
Bastién, like many of her peers, refutes the false impression that critics “just hate things” – in fact, the opposite is true.
“What guides me as a critic, first and foremost, is my passion and my curiosity,” she said. “I hope that shows through my work – that I really love the forms of film and television, and they mean a lot to me, and they’re distinctive, and they’re beguiling, and they’re challenging.”
Especially in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Bastién seeks to be engaged by cultural texts, whether movies, comic books, novels, or television series. “I just love to learn about them and explore them, fall into them, and just get to exist in the headspace of a completely different world for a while.”
What is your favorite thing that you’ve watched in quarantine?
[Laughing] Watching stuff in quarantine is … Focusing on anything is really difficult.
In terms of new things, definitely I May Destroy You… I also really enjoyed the film Black Bear last year as well. In terms of old things, there’s a David Lean film called The Passionate Friends from 1949 that I think was the best thing I’ve watched in the past year, above all else. Watching the second season of the Harley Quinn animated series was great.
Do you binge-watch?
I’m watching so many things for work, whether it’s directly reviewing a piece or for background research on something I’m doing, so I’m not much of a binge-watcher.
I grew up in a time where waiting for a show week-to-week was the norm. And I think that kind of lets things breathe a little bit better, so I actually try to avoid that.
Do you have a routine for when you’re screening something at home?
Maybe a nice glass of champagne in a coupe glass, because I am haughty like that. And you know, some incense. I definitely have the lights off, to kind of really envelop yourself into that environment, especially at home.
(Photo by Warner Brothers)
What makes a good movie?
For me, a good-to-great movie rests on the perspective of the artists involved. Do they have something to say? Is it novel, is it interesting, is it challenging? Does it challenge the status quo or does it capitulate to it?
You know, one thing I like to keep in mind is, as much as I love film and television as media, they’re completely capitalist enterprises, and that can totally influence the art involved. I tend to believe that good art, it challenges status quo more than anything else. It has a voice, it has a perspective, it has an understanding of history without being completely beholden to it. It has a strong visual grammar and perspective that feels in line with the story and thematics it’s interested in telling.
Above all else, I seek joy, I seek pleasure, and I seek being challenged as a viewer.
What were you watching the first time you saw yourself on screen, and what did you relate to about that story?
You know, it’s so funny getting asked a question like this. Because sometimes I wonder about the impulse to see yourself on screen. And I think sometimes people really judge this on the basis of identity. Like, “I’m a Black woman and I’m seeing another Black woman on screen that looks like me, moves like me, has similar concerns as I do.”
For me, I think the time that I really, really first saw myself, or at least spiritually saw myself on screen, was in Now, Voyager with Bette Davis’ performance. I am separated by time, race, sexual identity, with this woman. So you know, it’s not like we line up in those sort of ways. But spiritually, I felt like when I saw it as a teenager for the first time, I was blown away by is portrayal of mental illness and anxiety, and the complications that can happen between a daughter and a mother.
What is the hardest review that you’ve ever written?
Every new review is the hardest review I’ve ever written lately, to be honest. It’s been tough going. I will say, the Judas and the Black Messiah review was very tricky for me. Partially because I wanted to bring in a historical perspective, but not be so weighed down on it.
Who is an under-the-radar director or screenwriter that you think more people should know about?
I’d say up-and-coming may be a better term for them. Channing Godfrey Peoples, who wrote and directed Miss Juneteenth. I’m really excited to see where her career goes. And Chinonye Chukwu, who wrote and directed Clemency with Alfre Woodard, is a writer-director I’m very interested in. I’m so curious to see where these women’s careers go.
What is your favorite movie from your childhood?
I could be a basic bitch and mention Jurassic Park, which was apparently the first movie I saw in theaters, but I was so young I don’t remember it.
Favorite movie from my childhood… I did see Eve’s Bayou when I was very young, because my mom also really likes it. Partially because my family’s from Louisiana, I consider myself a Southern broad, and the way the South is depicted in films is very fascinating to me. Especially when Black people are allowed to inhabit these works. The text that is Eve’s Bayou is so dynamic, it’s so rich, it’s so challenging, it’s so visually inventive. It’s an amazing independent film. I’ve had taste since the beginning, apparently.
Is there someone in your life, that’s not a critic, whose opinion you seek out and admire?
E. Alex Jung. We’ve really become closer friends in the pandemic, and it’s a friendship I cherish. Partially because he’s really influenced me to ask for my worth and then some, and really challenge myself as a writer. I sometimes like to write my reviews or pieces as love letters to friends, and I keep them in mind. He was in mind with writing I May Destroy You.
(Photo by Doane Gregory - Netflix)
You are the world’s foremost expert on Keanu Reeves. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in him?
He’s one of my muses, so to speak. Keanu’s been a star my entire life. He’s just one of those stars who’s just had incredible longevity. And as a kid, watching movies with him just brought me a lot of joy. And for me as a critic, I often try to unpack, “Why does this piece of art or this actor or this work or whatever make me feel this way?” I always kind of deconstruct from there. Start with the emotion and then think about the filmmaking techniques that brought it out in you, right?
So with Keanu, it’s a lifetime love, pretty much – I’ve just always been fond of his work. And as a critic, it’s funny because now people’s opinions of him have changed, but when I was writing the piece in 2016, a lot of people were ragging on Keanu… They saw him as a star but not a worthwhile actor. And I’ve always argued that he actually is. He’s incredible with his physicality, he’s incredible with his presence. He gives such space to the actresses who act alongside him, in ways that a lot of male actors and stars do not.
He’s just all-around fascinating. Especially when we deal with conversations about race and what it means to be arguably white-passing in Hollywood.
You’ve also written about Cary Grant. I wonder if there’s overlap there with the way that you write about Keanu Reeves and his public versus private persona, too. Is that an interest for you, the embodiment of those multiple selves?
Star persona and star-making is one my greatest obsessions as a critic, because I think stars and our relationship to celebrity speaks to a lot of very complicated ideas about power, about beauty, about capitalism, about beauty as currency within a capitalist society. And it also really enriches our understanding of what actors are doing and how manicured these personas are.
One of my pet peeves is when people say, “That actor is just playing themselves.” I’m always like, “Damn, do you know them? Did you just get coffee with this person?” Because that doesn’t really make sense. You only know what they let you know.
Stars are very manicured. These personas aren’t created in a vacuum, you know what I mean? Even if they create them themselves, even if they’re just altering aspects of themselves. I think it’s just really rich. Acting makes legible certain cultural considerations. Our physicality can really speak to internal dynamics in really fascinating ways, which is why I really return to acting and star persona as subjects.
Is there an actor or director or screenwriter – and now that I’m asking this question I realize what I think the answer is going to be – whose work you always love?
In terms of an actor who, like, anything they appear in – Michelle Pfeiffer is a big one for me. I’m in love with her and probably always will be. Bette Davis, of course. Claude Rains. Juano Hernandez… Eartha Kitt, definitely. I’m a huge fan. One of my goals is to write a biography on her. Definitely one of my goals.
Also the classic Hollywood actress Theresa Harris – she was a Black woman who didn’t get a lot of roles, and they were often maids and stuff like that, but she was lightning-bright. She was charismatic. She had a forcefulness to her that, it’s a shame that she was, you know, in Hollywood at that time when her artistry couldn’t be properly developed.
Wong Kar-wai. Whoo, yes. I will be there for Wong Kar-wai. Park Chan-wook, definitely, in terms of modern directors. Nicholas Ray. Whoo. Big Nicholas Ray fan. Nicholas Ray, that’s a director who rips. So many people could learn from Johnny Guitar and In a Lonely Place.
John Carpenter. That question – I don’t know if you’re going to get to it – but the movie or TV series you love that’s Rotten on the Tomatometer… I was like, damn, there’s a lot of John Carpenters I like that are Rotten on here.
Let’s dive into that. Are his the Rotten movies that you love?
Specifically In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness, I noticed, were Rotten. The tides have turned on The Thing, obviously. Like, even if it was critically not accepted at the time, it’s definitely become a cult classic. So I don’t need to defend that.
But In the Mouth of Madness, I saw it a few years ago at the Music Box in Chicago for the first time. And it was such an amazing experience. It blew me the f–k way. And Prince of Darkness, too. Like, the fact that those movies are Rotten tells you there’s something wrong with critics. Sometimes critics get it wrong.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Courtesy of the Everett Collection)
What is the movie or television series that you have watched more than any other?
This is going to be an interesting answer to say, given the conversation swirling around its creator, but definitely Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the show I’ve seen the most. March 10, 1997, I heard that theme song, completely changed my life. And really got me interested in storytelling and feminism, and all these ideas.
Even if that show is riddled with issues racially, especially, but also in terms of how it portrays female characters. There’s a lot of internalized misogyny going around Sunnydale, in my opinion. And I don’t think Joss Whedon and some of the writers may have been as aware of that as they should be. But that’s definitely the show I have seen, backwards and forwards, the most.
Who are your greatest influences when it comes to your writing?
I’ll be a hundred: My greatest influences are not other critics, for the most part. Probably my greatest influences are Angela Carter – who wrote The Bloody Chamber, which is one of my favorite pieces of fiction in any medium and completely influences my sense of language and my desire to find a sense of poetry and musicality in the sentences I write. I’m also completely, completely enamored and influenced by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. They’re really important to me. Also Truman Capote is an influence of mine. Those are probably the really, really big ones.
Also my criticism, maybe this sounds kind of weird, it’s influenced by actors and what I see actors doing a lot. I really want my writing to have a physical presence, if that makes sense.
Two of my greatest influences on me, as an artist – point blank, period – are Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor. I have them on my desk, so I look at them every day when I’m writing. Especially Bette Davis. You know, Bette Davis sort of reminds me to always be working on your craft, to be getting better, to be curious, to challenge yourself. And Elizabeth Taylor reminds me that I’m just that b—h and I need to keep that in mind, and to always seek pleasure in what I do.
Do you have advice for critics who are still finding their voice?
Part of it is making sure you remain a voracious reader and watcher. You should always be absorbing more art than you put out, in my opinion, as a critic. And finding your voice is really about finding what passions guide you and what obsessions guide you. And I think for me personally, being guided by my obsessions – rather than being, say, a “jack of all trades” kind of critic – has really helped me stand out and find my own path. And I think that’s very important to kind of keep in mind, that you won’t be everything for everybody, and that’s okay.
(Photo by Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions)
What is your favorite classic film?
Oh, honey I don’t think I could name just one. I don’t even think I could name… Just one?
Yes. Just one!
Hmm. God, this is hard. Oh my god. Name just one. Favorite, favorite, favorite. Oh my god, this is such a hard question. I’m having a million movies running through my head. I think it’s terrible to ask this question. Because how are we supposed to answer just one?
I did mention In a Lonely Place and Nicholas Ray. I’m obsessed with that movie. … It’s one of the richest noir texts. It’s heartbreaking. It’s sharp and cunning and revealing about masculinity and femininity, and the way they clash together in American society. It’s beautifully shot.
Oh, no! You know what? I’m going to cross that out. Cross, cross, cross, cross.
I’m going to mention Sweet Smell of Success, which is another obsession of mine. It is one of the, in my opinion, the best-looking New York film I’ve seen. [Cinematographer] James Wong Howe created magic in that movie. It’s brutal! It’s revealing about masculinity and power and desire. The people are ugly and messed up in it. It’s such a fascinating movie.
What do you consider required viewing?
I find the idea of required viewing a very tricky thing, because the history of film is so broad and wide, and dynamic, and rich, and complicated.
I definitely think Bill Gunn, Kathleen Collins are important artists to consider and study. The work of John Cassavetes, definitely. A lot, a lot, a lot of directors today love to steal from him. But they don’t have John Cassavetes-like actors. They don’t have a John Cassavetes-like perspective. No artistry, no nothing. They just think having some white people screaming in the room is Cassavetes-like – and no, it’s not.
In the Mood for Love, I think, is definitely required viewing. Works by Billy Wilder like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution, Ace in the Hole. Ida Lupino‘s work is – you cannot be writing about gender in Hollywood, especially in regard to directors, without knowing and understanding her place in its history. Agnès Varda‘s work, I think, is really vital and necessary.
The thing is with doing required viewing is that, I think what’s required for viewers is curiosity. Consider everything I’m saying as a jumping off point for digging into the history of film.
Should I mention TV shows or just films?
Go for it with TV shows!
TV is often such an interesting time capsule. Let me look at my DVDs, actually. Let me see what I’m forgetting. … I will say, Batman: The Animated Series – also must viewing for people.
If you’re interested in seeing dynamic women on screen, watch Barbara Stanwyck in damn near anything. Clash by Night, Forty Guns. She’s definitely one of the best actors to ever be put in front of a camera, in my opinion.
Those are just a few things off the top of my head. I could keep going, but I think I’ll stop.