One of the best and most famous films ever made revolves around a mathematician. You’ll recognize several other titles featured on the list, but frankly, there are a ton of underrated projects featured herein, too. But for the most part, they were all directed by the biggest directors the industry has ever seen, and they have star-studded casts to boot.
A noteworthy point to make is that these movies feature mathematicians as their respective main characters. So, projects such as Moneyball (2011) would only count if Jonah Hill’s character were the protagonist, for instance. And for what it’s worth, international cinema will be included on the list. All that said, these are the sixteen best movies about mathematicians, ranked.
16 Straw Dogs
Championed by plenty of famous film critics such as Gene Siskel, this entry was rather controversial upon release. Specifically, Straw Dogs (1971) received criticism for its displays of violence. Certain scenes were even censored by a variety of film rating boards, with several other films from this very year utilizing a similarly violent aesthetic: A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick and Dirty Harry (1971) by Don Siegel, for example.
But Straw Dogs is easily the most overlooked of those. It follows Dustin Hoffman’s protagonist David (the mathematician of the bunch) who marries an Englishwoman named Amy. But when they relocate to the latter’s hometown, David is given the cold shoulder by the men thereof. An odd source of conflict for a psychological thriller. Thankfully, director Sam Peckinpah saw it come into fantastic fruition.
15 In Our Prime
After gaining popularity in the States in the early 2000s thanks to films such as Oldboy (2003), the cinema of South Korea has seen an overseas resurgence as of late thanks to Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho. But really, South Korean filmmakers have never stopped releasing high-quality content, and that’s very much the case with In Our Prime (2022). Directed by Park Dong-hoon, the entry at hand follows two protagonists: a genius mathematician and a student who’s failing the subject.
The former is played by Choi Min-sik, one of South Korea’s all-time greatest thespians and the star of the aforementioned Oldboy. But with In Our Prime, he shares a dazzling rapport with his on-screen co-star Kim Dong-hwi, who plays the novice of the dynamic. And although few of these names likely mean much to you, rest assured that each creative working on In Our Prime — whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes — elevated this project to qualitative heights.
14 The Man Who Knew Infinity
Based on Robert Kanigel’s 1991 book of the same name, The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015) focuses on a real-life mathematician named Srinivasa Ramanujan. He’s played by Dev Patel, with Jeremy Irons appearing in a supporting role as another legitimate mathematician named G.H. Hardy. Both thespians portray their respective academics to an absolute tee, with great reviews doled out to both of them by pundits of the industry. In fact, even if you aren’t interested in mathematics, their respective performances and grand dynamic would be worth the watch by themselves.
It follows Ramanujan as he becomes a pioneer of mathematical theories under the tutelage of the aforementioned professor, G.H. Hardy. The former does so at Cambridge University amid the disastrous happenings of World War I, with the adjustment to his new home of England being far more complicated than expected due to racial injustices. The Man Who Knew Infinity seems at first like a typical biopic with Oscar-caliber performers in the lead roles. But upon digging deeper into the rapport of its characters and the efforts of its leads, this becomes an essential movie about the topic at hand.
13 The Theory of Everything
Among the more well-known films up to this point on the list is The Theory of Everything (2014), starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Those unfamiliar with the gripping story of that real-life theoretical physicist should experience the film from start with a fresh perspective, but rest assured: it runs the gamut of emotion with one of the most brilliant performances on the entire list provided by Redmayne.
He walked away with a golden statuette for Best Actor at the 87th Academy Awards, in fact. And he deserved it through and through. Supporting efforts are given by the likes of Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, and Emily Watson, with everyone sharing a tangible dynamic with each other and Redmayne alike to render this one of the most entertaining exchanges of dialogue you’ll read about today. But really, The Theory of Everything goes down as an essential movie about mathematicians primarily due to the career-defining performance from the aforementioned Oscar winner.
Without a doubt, one of the lesser-known movies on the list is Enigma (2001), directed by Michael Apted from a script by Tom Stoppard. The latter is a revered playwright with many notable works under his belt such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But he’s also written several screenplays aside from the one at hand: Brazil (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), and Shakespeare in Love (1998) were all written by Stoppard. And sure, you may not recognize either of those creatives by name. You should without a doubt know the actress in the film’s lead role, though.
In one of the more overlooked roles of her career, English actress Kate Winslet appears (alongside actor Dougray Scott) here in Enigma as a Blechley Park enigma codebreaker amid World War II. The project received criticism for its historical inaccuracies, but for the most part, critics were pleased with the overall product. When it comes to movies about mathematicians, no conversation is complete without the mentioning of Enigma.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, this psychological thriller follows a student of mathematics who obsesses over trying to find complete order for the world in which he lives. Of course, the title of Pi (1998) refers to the mathematical constant of the same name, with the protagonist more specifically attempting in the film to contrast human nature with the number theory. It’s an off-the-wall premise from its first frame, but Aronofsky’s behind-the-scenes brilliance renders it an essential film about the subject at hand.
This was Aronofsky’s feature-length directorial debut, and critics were more than pleased with its quality. Pi made great waves at the worldwide box office too, and it’s still looked back on fondly today. If you’re a fan of this director’s later works such as Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), and The Whale (2022), or if you’re just looking for a solid project about mathematicians, Pi should without a doubt be for you.
From its opening scene, Cube (1997) features some of the most tantalizing camerawork you’re bound to read about today. Right out of the gate, low angles are used to convey a sense of helplessness surrounding a given character, while shaky handheld shots aim to elicit anxiety. Fitting, as the plot follows six people who suddenly awaken within an involved deathtrap that’s constructed on mathematical principles, a sort of labyrinth consisting of cube-shaped rooms.
One member of the group is a math student, while the others harbor unique skill sets of their own. There’s an escape artist in their midst, along with a free clinic doctor and a police officer. They aren’t portrayed by any notable names, nor would you recognize any of the creatives that worked behind the scenes. But Cube is nonetheless a thrill ride from its first scene until the final frame, and it’s without a doubt an essential film regarding mathematicians.
9 Stand and Deliver
Directed by Ramón Menéndez from a script he co-wrote with Tom Musca, this entry tells the story of real-life high school math teacher Jamie Escalante. He’s portrayed here in Stand and Deliver (1988) by Edward James Olmos, and for his career-defining efforts, he received a nomination for Best Actor at the 61st Academy Awards.
Sure, he came up short to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) for the golden statuette. But that’s one of the most legendary performances of the decade, and it of course takes nothing away from Olmos’s work. And to speak more to the quality of the film at hand, it won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature. That’s a fairly high honor, and to top things off, it’s been preserved by the Library of Congress with a spot in the National Film Registry.
8 The Imitation Game
Widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing is the most influential figure the latter field has ever seen. He’s portrayed in The Imitation Game (2014) by Benedict Cumberbatch, who received widespread acclaim for his performance.
The film as a whole won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 87th Academy Awards, too, with the overall product being of the utmost quality. If The Imitation Game somehow eluded you while it was in theaters or during its subsequent release into the home video market, you can rest assured that it’s well-worth your time.
7 A Serious Man
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, this entry stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a physics professor named Larry Gopnik. His life is falling apart around him both personally and professionally, with the main source of conflict coming from within as the filmmaking duo explores the human condition. Larry’s wife leaves him, his brother moves in after losing his job, and a co-worker attempts to ruin his shot at tenure.
And despite flying a bit under the public radar, A Serious Man (2009) resonated quite fondly with critics. In fact, the film as a whole picked up a nod for Best Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards, while the Coen Brothers picked up a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. There are plenty of other high-quality elements of filmmaking worth writing home about too, from the cinematography by Roger Deakins to the score by Carter Burwell. Everyone is near enough to the top of their game to render A Serious Man a no-brainer choice for the list.
6 A Beautiful Mind
With regard to on-paper statistics, A Beautiful Mind (2001) is by far and away the most impressive feature on the list. It didn’t just accrue great money at the worldwide box office — $317 million off a budget of $58 million — but it also cleaned up at the 74th Academy Awards. It won four out of eight total nominations, including Best Director for Ron Howard, Best Actress for Jennifer Connelly, Best Adapted Screenplay for Akiva Goldsman, and even Best Picture for the film overall.
Australian actor Russell Crowe didn’t walk away with a golden statuette for his work, but he nonetheless received a nomination for Best Actor thanks to his efforts as real-life, American mathematician John Nash. A Beautiful Mind is one of the most famous films featured herein, and with good reason. It ultimately comes in at number six.
In their sixth collaboration with one another, English director Christopher Nolan and Irish actor Cillian Murphy teamed up once again to show audiences across the globe how one man amid World War II change history forever. Of course, Oppenheimer (2023) follows the titular theoretical physicist of American origins — played to a career-defining degree by Murphy — as he leads the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
Though hard to watch at times, Oppenheimer moves at such a quick pace that the wit and well-researched nature of its dialogue keep your attention rolling until the credits do. And it features one of the most star-studded casts you’ll read about today, with far too many names from the Hollywood block to list individually. But they’re all at the top of their games in Oppenheimer to render it a top-five pick for the best movies about mathematicians.
4 Hidden Figures
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, this is both a more recent movie on the list, and one of the more famous. It follows three African American mathematicians who played integral roles in the advancement of space technology, and they’re portrayed wonderfully by their respective thespians. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe all received widespread acclaim for their leading efforts, with Spencer even garnering a nomination at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actress.
Other talented and well-known performers among the cast of Hidden Figures (2016) include the likes of Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, and Jim Parsons. Hard-hitting themes emerge early in the story, and they will have flourished in poignance by the time it’s said and done. Even if this weren’t a true story with real-life implications, Hidden Figures would still warrant a spot amid the best movies made about mathematicians.
Though a bit slow to start, Proof (2006) picks up in the second act and only snowballs in intrigue and intensity from there. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, the daughter of a revered mathematician — Robert, played by Anthony Hopkins. The latter passes away near the beginning of the film, and his pupil (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into mix while hoping to sift through the deceased’s notebooks. On top of his mathematical aspirations, he also plays in a rock band, and he develops an interest in Catherine that flourishes into a tremendous rapport between their performers.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins are three of the most talented actors of their respective generations, but the value of their names failed to attract audiences to attend showings of Proof at their local movie theaters. It didn’t exactly resonate fondly with pundits of the industry, either. Sure, certain critics such as Roger Ebert championed the film upon release. But it nonetheless remains an underrated project from everyone involved, with its focus on mathematics rendering it a surefire pick for the list.
2 21 Grams
This second entry in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s spiritual “Death Trilogy” follows three disparate storylines connected by the tragedy of a hit-and-run. Sean Penn plays a critically ill mathematics professor named Paul Rivers, while other performers in 21 Grams (2003) include the likes of Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Melissa Leo, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. They all perform brilliantly — in fact, Watts received a nod for Best Actress at the 76th Academy Awards, along with Best Supporting Actor for Del Toro. Both well-earned.
But intriguing tactics of lighting, well-selected wardrobes, and a carefully curated color palette all played into rendering each story line idiosyncratic, unique in their own ways, and impressive across the board of high-quality filmmaking. Iñárritu is one of the greatest directors Mexico has ever produced, and 21 Grams is among the best features of his career. It’s also one of the best movies ever made that revolve around mathematicians.
1 Good Will Hunting
Perhaps the most famous film on the list is Good Will Hunting (1997), which happens to be the best of the bunch, as well. Directed by Gus Van Sant from a script co-penned by both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this film features those two screenwriters in the lead roles. Specifically, Damon plays the titular character Will, a blue-collar worker with a genius-level IQ, while Affleck appears as his best friend Chuckie. And speaking of the cast, the most poignant performance of the pack was provided by Robin Williams.
It’s the greatest role of his career as Dr. Sean Maguire, and he shares a tangible rapport with Damon every step of the way. Williams won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor thanks to his efforts, with Damon and Affleck winning the golden statuette for Best Original Screenplay. And Good Will Hunting as a whole holds up to perfection nearly three decades down the line. This could very well be known forever as the best movie about a mathematician.