Even if math may not have been your favorite subject in school, it makes an excellent subject of film. Here are some movies, besides Pi, to celebrate Pi day.
The best movies about math
‘A Beautiful Mind’
A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002. It is based on the real life mathematician John Nash. As Nash (Russell Crowe) is studying at Princeton, he is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. As the time passes, he is able to work through his hallucinations, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize in Economics.
Like many movies on this list, A Beautiful Mind deals heavily with mental illness. A Beautiful Mind is commendable for trying to bring the audience into Nash’s mind. It also visualizes the math beautifully through the now iconic images of Nash drawing on the windows.
‘A Brilliant Young Mind’
A Brilliant Young Mind was released in 2015 in the United States, and under the title X+Y in the United Kingdom. Nathan (Asa Butterfield) excels in his classes at school, especially in math. His teacher Martin (Rafe Spall) recognizes his abilities and prepares Nathan for the International Mathematical Olympiad.
This is not only a movie about math but also a coming of age story. Through math, Nathan begins to connect with his peers, which is something he has struggled with due to his diagnosis of Asperger’s.
‘Good Will Hunting’
Matt Damon won his only Oscar for Good Will Hunting, not for his acting, but for the screenplay he wrote with Ben Affleck. Damon stars as Will, a janitor at MIT. A professor at the school writes a problem of great difficulty on a blackboard in the hallway. None of his students are able to solve it, but Will approaches the board and answers it correctly. Will must decide if he wants to challenge himself, continuing in mathematics and committing to relationships, or to continue living aimlessly.
Continuing a similar theme, this movie is not so much about math. It uses math as a mode to convey a larger story. Others recognize Will’s immense mathematical talents, which forces him to face this truth himself.
Hidden Figures is the most recently released movie on this list, and was also nominated for three Oscars in 2017. This also happens to be the first movie on this list not starring a white man. Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as real-life NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, respectively. The three battle their way through recognition of their work and to receive more challenging work in the 1960s.
Of all the movies on this list, Hidden Figures’ plot revolves most specifically around math. Unlike the others, it is not so much about the characters’ internal challenges. Rather, it is about the three battling external racial challenges, which happens to be within the field of math and science.
Proof is based on the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play written by David Auburn. Proof stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, the daughter of a famous mathematician, Robert (Anthony Hopkins). After Robert’s death, one of his students, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), decides to look through his hundreds of notebooks to find if he had any important mathematic discoveries. However, Hal was suffering from an unlabeled mental illness in his later years, unable to complete thorough work. This comes into question when Hal discovers a notebook filled with an incredibly important proof.
This description is somewhat vague because Proof contains an amazing plot twist. Almost all the characters in this film are mathematicians, so many of the conversations are about the relevance of math. Also, there is a great math joke about how a rock band, made up of teachers in the math department, play a song called “i”. They stand on stage for three minutes without playing anything. This movie also deals with mental illness, yet interestingly also revolves around a woman’s struggles, which is not the norm for a movie of this subject matter.
Do you have any other favorite movies about math?
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