By tpm | July 8, 2013
I’ve been thinking about putting together a list of the best math movies of all time for a while now. Such a list is sure to create some controversy, so I decided it was important to be as objective as possible. As a result, I created a couple of rules before I got started.
The first rule might cause the most controversy. The movie had to feature a mathematician as a major character or plot point. That meant movies like the first and third Jurassic Park were eligible for inclusion thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s character but, unfortunately, Moneyball, which technically featured Jonah Hill as a statistician rather than mathematician, was out. I know, it’s a fine point. Fortunately for me, Wikipedia had a fine list of movies featuring mathematicians to get me started.
The second rule should be much less controversial. Rather than play critic myself, I used Rotten Tomatoes rankings. If there were not enough reviews for an aggregate ranking, the movie was out.
Enough about rules, here’s the list, along with each movie’s “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve also included a link to each movie on Amazon.
#1 Good Will Hunting 97% (Amazon)
15th anniversary edition? How can it have been 15 years since I was a mathematics undergraduate sitting in a theater transfixed by this story of a mathematical genius who has been beaten down by life. The movie launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams joined the party just for good measure. It is no wonder the critics call this the number one math movie of all time.
#2 A Summer’s Tale 93% (Amazon)
A young mathematician vacationing in Brittany finds himself caught up in romance. I know, I know, but 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s really high, right?
#3 Jurassic Park 92% (Amazon)
I think I can speak for all of us when I say that the valuable lesson Jurrasic Park taught us was that if everyone had just listened to Jeff Goldblum’s character that we could have prevented the whole dino-tragedy. The fat guy from Seinfeld didn’t have to die. It’s called chaos theory, people! When a mathematician claims to be able to predict the future, listen to what he has to say.
#4 Straw Dogs 91% (Amazon)
One of the more violent films on this list, Straw Dogs came out the same month as Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, a part of a trend at the time. Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician on sabbatical with his new wife in rural England. He’s forced to defend himself against local tough guys, and he finds that there’s more violence inside of him than he had realized.
#5 Pi 87% (Amazon)
A psychological thriller, Sean Gullette’s mathematician looks for patterns in everything all around him, and he believes everyone from Wall Street investors to Hassidic Jews are out to get him. While low budget, Pi won the director’s award at Sundance in 1998.
#6 21 Grams 81% (Amazon)
21 grams is a non-linear plot that’s told about the aftermath of a car accident. Sean Penn is a critically ill mathematician who is desperately in need of a heart transplant, Naomi Watts a grief stricken mother, and Benicio del Toro a born again Christian whose faith is sorely tested in the aftermath of the accident.
#7 Sneakers 81% (Amazon)
The mathematician is the bad guy in this one. Dr. Gunter Janek has created some sort of black box that can decode any encrypted message. There’s an excellent cast that includes Robert Redbord, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, and River Phoenix. Unsurprisingly, a team is formed that goes after that device. I like to think of it as a slightly sillier, more dated Ocean’s 11, but it’s a lot of fun. Sneakers, by the way, lost the tie breaker to 21 Grams by virtue of the fan ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, in case you were wondering.
#8 A Beautiful Mind 78% (Amazon)
I was actually surprised this one didn’t finish a little higher. Sure, 78% is a very strong ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, but anyone who has seen Russel Crowe’s performance as mathematician John Nash is sure to be moved by it. Nash’s life story and his struggle with schizophrenia is truly an amazing tale and is highly recommended.
#9 Stand and Deliver 73% (Amazon)
Based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver told the story of an AP Calculus teacher who defied the odds and The College Board in East Central Los Angeles. It inspired a generation of both teachers and students and to some extent helped fuel the so called “back to basics” movement.
#10 Enigma 72% (Amazon)
Enigma is the story of the Brits trying to crack the German Enigma machine. Once again, romance plays a major role in the story line, this time with Katie Winslet playing the leading lady. Many of these movies seem to stress the idea that mathematicians are truly better with the ladies than you think they are. I am certainly not opposed to Hollywood continuing to rewrite that stereotype.