Ben Affleck’s “Air” has debuted to very strong reviews. It currently sits at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and 77 on Metacritic. Amazon is so confident in the film’s prospects as an audience-friendly crowd-pleaser that they’re giving the film a wide theatrical release, which is unprecedented for a streaming film. Box Office tracking suggests Amazon’s instincts were correct, as the film looks to have a solid $16 – 20 million opening weekend.
All of this, of course, means that people are already discussing the possibility that “Air” could be a contender for next year’s Oscars. After all, well-crafted, straightforward, crowd-pleasing mid-budget adult dramas have historically played well with the Academy. Recently, look at “Ford v Ferrari” or “King Richard” for examples of this. And in earlier years, look at films like “Michael Clayton” or Ben Affleck’s previous directorial effort, the Best Picture-winning “Argo.” In an era where mid-budget adult dramas are increasingly rare, having one that is a resounding success at the box office is even rarer. There might be a real urge to reward “Air” and the kind of filmmaking it represents. But of course, it is still just April. The Oscars are a year away! Some might say it is absurd to be discussing Oscar prospects for any 2023 film at this point. After all, the Oscars for 2022 films were less than a month ago. But when the last two Best Picture Oscar Winners (“Everything Everywhere All At Once,” and “CODA“) had their world premieres in March and January, respectively, we can’t really say April is too early to start considering newly released films as potential contenders. So, with “Air’s” strong reviews and potentially robust box office returns, what kind of contender could it be next year?
BEST PICTURELet’s be honest…probably not. Maybe if this year ends up being a particularly weak one, but I would honestly be shocked if this were to happen. On paper, 2023 looks to be a strong year for film. Now, “Air” is a solid film all around, and movies like it can win Best Picture. Ben Affleck won Best Picture for a well-directed crowd-pleaser in 2012 with “Argo.” But, while “Air” might be an even greater crowd pleaser, it is not the edge-of-your-seat, suspense-filled thrill ride that “Argo” was. Nor is it about the Academy’s favorite subject (itself) like “Argo” was. Instead, “Air” is essentially a talking head movie set in corporate boardrooms and offices. Movies like that, if nominated, tend to be nominees, not winners like “The Social Network” and “Moneyball.” “Air” doesn’t choose to dig deep into many of the themes it touches upon. It doesn’t want to be a deep film. It wants to be an enjoyable one. And it achieves that goal. But it doesn’t have the feel of a Best Picture winner.
Additionally, “Air” is getting released in April. “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” aside, that is nearly a year before next year’s Oscars. A film must find a passionate fanbase and some kind of hook to keep it in the conversation all year long. If “Air” is a massive box office hit (breaks $100 million domestic, for example), that classic Hollywood success story might be the hook it needs. But looking at the film objectively right now, it will have to fight to stay relevant as voters focus on other films for the next eleven months. Amazon will need to spend and campaign the film hard to see it go all the way to a nomination, let alone a win. So, if “Air” is probably a no for winning Best Picture but maybe a contender for a nomination, where else could “Air” end up in the awards conversation?
Ben Affleck famously missed an expected Oscar nomination for “Argo” in 2012 for Best Director. The directors’ branch may see this as a chance to make it up to him. But probably not. Affleck’s directing is more restrained here than his comparatively flashy work in “Argo” and “The Town.” Here, he mainly lets the script and actors do much of the heavy lifting. One or two sequences aside, his directing tends to avoid calling attention to itself. This isn’t a criticism. It just means that while Affleck’s work is competent, it doesn’t seem like the work that ends up as a likely threat for a nomination unless the film becomes a top-five Best Picture contender, which we’ve already established it likely will not. There is also the fact that the Academy Directors’ branch already seems hesitant to nominate well-known Actors-turned-Directors for Best Director, just as Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born“), Regina King (“One Night In Miami“), Denzel Washington (“Fences“), Sean Penn (“Into The Wild”), and others have learned the hard way. Unless “Air” does stick around to be a threat for Best Picture, I wouldn’t consider Affleck much of a threat for a nomination here.
BEST ACTORMatt Damon brings his typical movie star charisma to his leading role in “Air.” He sells the hell out of an emotional monologue near the end of the film that will likely stick with voters as they leave the theater. He also has a slight physical transformation with an out-of-shape gut and double chin to portray a middle-aged executive. But overall, this is nothing we haven’t seen Damon do before. It’s not the kind of performance that seems inclined to stick with voters all year. Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari” and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” gave similar strong movie-star performances in crowd-pleasing dad movies like this and were discussed as potential Best Actor nominees accordingly, but neither managed to secure a nomination in the end. I would expect the same for Damon.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESSLike Damon, Viola Davis isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen her do before. At the same time, what she’s doing here is heartfelt and showy enough that her performance will likely be one of the film’s main standouts for voters. In many ways, in her role as Michael Jordan’s mother, she is the heart of the film. Much of the plot revolves around the idea that if Nike can win her over, they can win over Michael Jordan. It’s a classic supporting performance in an accessible film by a respected veteran actress with a couple of big emotional moments and a show-stopping monologue—everything the Academy acting branch likes in its supporting nominations. If “Air” becomes a Best Picture nominee, consider Viola Davis, a strong contender for a nomination. If “Air” is not a Best Picture Nominee, Davis’ performance has enough going for it that it could still be a threat for a nomination or at least a contender at other groups like SAG.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
“Air” has a fantastic ensemble cast. Everyone is entertaining and has fun bouncing around the film’s witty dialogue, with Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, and Chris Messina all getting at least one standout moment. But none of them feel like the kind to go all the way to an Oscar nomination unless the Academy really loves the film.
Affleck probably has the most screentime of the bunch, and, playing Nike CEO Phil Knight, he lets himself come across in an endearing, self-deprecating fashion, complete with a bad haircut and a tendency to spout pseudo-intellectual platitudes. Affleck has still never received an acting nomination, and this could be a chance to reward him in this area. His acting has undoubtedly built goodwill in recent years with critically acclaimed performances in films like “The Way Back” and “The Tender Bar.” Still, without a Best Picture nomination, Affleck’s performance doesn’t seem like the type that would stick with voters until next year. Much like the other categories we’ve discussed so far, the film would need to be significantly loved and embraced by the Academy for Affleck or one of the other supporting actors to factor into the race.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYBesides Viola Davis, Best Original Screenplay seems like the easiest category for “Air” to stick around all year as a contender. The screenplay by Alex Convery (who has sole writing credit) is dialogue-heavy, fast-paced, and funny. And after several years of being the more competitive category, this year, Best Original Screenplay is shaping up to be thinner in terms of contenders than Best Adapted Screenplay. With the right campaign behind it, “Air” could have a real shot here. If the film is a Best Picture nominee, this seems like the most obvious accompanying nomination. Without a Best Picture nomination, the script is still fun and dialogue-heavy enough to be a threat for a nomination either way.
BEST FILM EDITING
William Goldenberg is well-liked by the editing branch. He has won an Oscar before (for “Argo“) and has been nominated four more times. His work in “Air” brings his usual flashy cuts and quick pacing. Still, it is rare to be nominated for Best Film Editing without being nominated for Best Picture. Only “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” “I, Tonya,” “Baby Driver,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” have been nominated without an accompanying Best Picture nomination since the Best Picture category expanded beyond five nominees in 2009. And of those films, all except “Baby Driver” were likely close to Best Picture nominations. The editing branch may like William Goldenberg, but all five of his nominations were for Best Picture-nominated films. Thus, if “Air” is a Best Picture contender, it could likely take Best Film Editing along for the ride. Otherwise, a nomination would be an uphill battle.
The cinematography in “Air” comes from multi-Oscar winner Robert Richardson (“Hugo,” “The Aviator” & “JFK”). Still, aside from a grainy 80s aesthetic, it isn’t the sort of notable work that tends to win or even get nominated. Similar boardroom set movies like “Moneyball” and “The Social Network” may have secured Best Sound Oscar nominations, but those were both strong Best Picture contenders.
Almost all of Ben Affleck’s latest film’s Oscar prospects hinge on it being a Best Picture contender. Nothing else will likely fall into place without that nomination except Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress and Alex Convery’s screenplay. Amazon will surely put up a hefty campaign to bring it back to voters’ minds in the winter after the fall film festivals, but will it be enough to stick? Overall, “Air” isn’t a slam dunk Oscar contender. If it makes a lot of money, it could become the next “Ford v Ferrari.” But it could just as easily be entirely forgotten come awards season.