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We introduce a unifying energy minimization framework for nonlocal regularization of inverse problems. In contrast to the weighted sum of square differences between image pixels used by current schemes, the proposed functional is an unweighted sum of inter-patch distances. We use robust distance metrics that promote the averaging of similar patches, while discouraging the averaging of dissimilar patches. We show that the first iteration of a majorize-minimize algorithm to minimize the proposed cost function is similar to current nonlocal methods. The reformulation thus provides a theoretical justification for the heuristic approach of iterating nonlocal schemes, which re-estimate the weights from the current image estimate. Thanks to the reformulation, we now understand that the widely reported alias amplification associated with iterative nonlocal methods are caused by the convergence to local minimum of the nonconvex penalty. We introduce an efficient continuation strategy to overcome this problem. The similarity of the proposed criterion to widely used nonquadratic penalties (e.g., total variation and lp semi-norms) opens the door to the adaptation of fast algorithms developed in the context of compressive sensing; we introduce several novel algorithms to solve the proposed nonlocal optimization problem. Thanks to the unifying framework, these fast algorithms are readily applicable for a large class of distance metrics.