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Facial expression is an important channel for human communication and can be applied in many real applications. One critical step for facial expression recognition (FER) is to accurately extract emotional features. Current approaches on FER in static images have not fully considered and utilized the features of facial element and muscle movements, which represent static and dynamic, as well as geometric and appearance characteristics of facial expressions. This paper proposes an approach to solve this limitation using "salient” distance features, which are obtained by extracting patch-based 3D Gabor features, selecting the "salient” patches, and performing patch matching operations. The experimental results demonstrate high correct recognition rate (CRR), significant performance improvements due to the consideration of facial element and muscle movements, promising results under face registration errors, and fast processing time. Comparison with the state-of-the-art performance confirms that the proposed approach achieves the highest CRR on the JAFFE database and is among the top performers on the Cohn-Kanade (CK) database.