Patricio Guzmán's gorgeous documentary The Pearl Button is in a class with the other beauty-of-nature reveries like Koyannisqatsi and Baraka, but with its political overtones delivered via somber narration. The title refers to two different pearl buttons from South America: One was used to "pay" a 19th-century Fuegian tribesman to come to England to be "civilized," and another was found more recently on a submerged piece of railroad track to which Augusto Pinochet had one of hundreds of leftists bagged, tied, and dumped into the ocean. When not considering the horrors of Chile's past via both external and internal forces,The Pearl Buttonis at its best when philosophizing on the connections between life on Earth and the universe, especially regarding water. Guzmán honors the comets that brought water to our planet, as well as the water-producing quasar discovered by NASA more than 12 billion light-years away. The presence of Atacama radio telescopes in Chile is given a special and quite positive significance, and interesting parallel is drawn between astrophysicists and indigenous people, seeking a connection with the cosmos. It's a rare and wonderful thing for a documentary about nature and native peoples not to inherently distrust all manner of modern technology. Yeah, we're looking at you, Love Thy Nature.
Spoiler: The bikes win. (Philosophically, anyway.) Fredrik Gertten's documentary Bikes vs. Cars is proudly pro-handlebars and anti-steering wheels, and if it never makes a convincing argument for how to find a balance between the two, that's because it doesn't really try. Gertten looks at how the auto industry made bikes and public transportation effectively go extinct in the early-to-mid-1900s Los Angeles, as well as how activists around the world are working to make more bike-friendly cities. Copenhagen is held up as a shining example, while the pro-car forces are represented by the likes of Toronto mayor and noted hookers-and-blow enthusiast Rob Ford. Some of the ideas of Bikes vs. Cars have merit, but many — such as the suggestion to eliminate cars by making driving prohibitively expensive — have a noticeable whiff of able-ism, and the film pays only minor lip service to people for whom biking everywhere always is not an option. Bikes vs. Cars preaches to the choir, who may also accept film's questionable utopianism; indeed, one interviewee describes the famous 2012 "Carmageddon" closure of Interstate 405 as a utopia because, among other things, people ate in local restaurants that weekend. (So the desire to cross town is the real villain, then?) But the thing about utopias is they never last more than a weekend.